Tagchristian

accountable

As a Christian, I am accountable to God, and, as I understand things, that means I am also accountable  to the teachings of Holy Scripture and to the witness of the Church throughout history, especially as it has expressed itself in the great ecumenical creeds. I am, further and in a different way, accountable to my local body of believers, who I am instructed to support materially, in service, in prayer, and in common worship.

To those of you on social media, and other media, demanding that I take stands in conformity to your setting forth of The Options regarding The Issues, I am not accountable in any way. I do not care what you say and will not obey you, and if that makes you angry, you may call me any names you want to call me. I do not care.

the “decline of religion”

Here’s something C. S. Lewis wrote in a 1946 essay called “The Decline of Religion”:

The `decline of religion’ so often lamented (or welcomed) is held to be shown by empty chapels [in the Oxbridge colleges]. Now it is quite true that that chapels which were full in 1900 are empty in 1946. But this change was not gradual. It occurred at the precise moment when chapel ceased to be compulsory. It was not in fact a decline; it was a precipice. The sixty men who had come because chapel was a little later than ‘rollers’ (its only alternative) came no more; the five Christians remained. The withdrawal of compulsion did not create a new religious situation, but only revealed the situation which had long existed. And this is typical of the ‘decline in religion’ all over England.

I think it’s pretty obvious that the situation that obtained at Oxford and Cambridge when chapel attendance was made optional is closely analogous to the religious situation in America today. Everywhere in America, and even in the deep South, being a Christian has ceased is rapidly ceasing to be socially rewarding or even acceptable.* More from Lewis:

One way of putting the truth would be that the religion which has declined was not Christianity. It was a vague Theism with a strong and virile ethical code, which, far from standing over against the ‘World’, was absorbed into the whole fabric of English institutions and sentiment and therefore demanded church-going as (at best) a part of loyalty and good manners as (at worst) a proof of respectability. Hence a social pressure, like the withdrawal of the compulsion, did not create a new situation. The new freedom first allowed accurate observations to be made. When no man goes to church except because he seeks Christ the number of actual believers can at last be discovered.

That’s what we are discovering. The question is whether American churches will have the intellectual and spiritual integrity necessary to recognize and accept how completely they have relied on the social appeal of a “vague Theism” and how little they have spoken to those who go to church because they seek Christ. What’s at stake here is merely life or death.


*I changed that on reflection — where I live in central Texas, and in the many parts of the Southeast, being known to have a church community is still an index of trustworthiness in some business and social contexts. 

the rad-trads and ecumenical hope

Many typos and missed auto-errors now fixed; sorry about those

I find myself thinking often about this 2014 essay by Pat Deneen, one of the smartest political thinkers I know and one of the most incisive commentators on matters Catholic. The core distinction the essay makes seems to me vital. It concerns two rival models of Catholicism that have emerged to replace the old distinction between “liberal” and “conservative” Catholicism.

On the one side one finds an older American tradition of orthodox Catholicism as it has developed in the nation since the mid-twentieth century…. Its basic positions align closely to the arguments developed by John Courtney Murray and others. Essentially, there is no fundamental contradiction between liberal democracy and Catholicism. Liberal democracy is, or at its best can be, a tolerant home for Catholics, one that acknowledges contributions of the Catholic tradition and is leavened by its moral commitments. While liberalism alone can be brittle and thin — its stated neutrality can leave it awash in relativism and indifferentism — it is deepened and rendered more sustainable by the Catholic presence….

On the other side is arrayed what might be characterized as a more radical Catholicism…. The “radical” school rejects the view that Catholicism and liberal democracy are fundamentally compatible. Rather, liberalism cannot be understood to be merely neutral and ultimately tolerant toward (and even potentially benefitting from) Catholicism. Rather, liberalism is premised on a contrary view of human nature (and even a competing theology) to Catholicism. Liberalism holds that human beings are essentially separate, sovereign selves who will cooperate based upon grounds of utility. According to this view, liberalism is not a “shell” philosophy that allows a thousand flowers to bloom. Rather, liberalism is constituted by a substantive set of philosophical commitments that are deeply contrary to the basic beliefs of Catholicism.

In the four-and-a-half years since this essay appeared, two significant developments have occurred that alter, but only to some extent, the story Deneen tells.

First, the collapse of liberal Catholicism — which Deneen in the essay takes as a given — has, it’s safe to say, been postponed. I doubt Deneen would see any substantive reason to question his belief that “Liberal Catholicism has no future — like liberal Protestantism, it is fated to become liberalism simpliciter within a generation”; but that leaves unanswered the question of whether “liberalism simpliciter” could come to run the Catholic Church, at least for a while. In any event, that’s an intra-Catholic issue and not one that I’m concerned with here. (Though I have my preferences about how it all falls out.)

Second, though: his “radical Catholics” — rad-trads, tradinistas (the latter being, I think, a subset of the former) — have grown in power and have taken over some territory that once belonged to that older conservative tradition. In 2014 Deneen could confidently identify First Things as a magazine exemplifying the older tradition, but in the intervening years the rad-trads have become much more vocal there, to the point that the older conservatism is certainly a minority position in the magazine and may eventually disappear altogether. And in at least one sense that is a welcome development: as I have noted several times over the years, my primary disagreement with Father Neuhaus, the founding editor of First Things, centered on what I felt was his too-great comfort with the American project and his consequent reluctance to subject it to as thorough a critique as it has often deserved.

But though I admire the rad-trad willingness to subject the liberal order to comprehensive critical scrutiny, there’s another feature of the movement that I’m not so happy with: its general lack of interest in, and in many cases even disdain for, for non-Catholics. This is an old theme with me, but re-reading Deneen’s essay has given me a new understanding of the phenomenon.

If I were writing an essay instead of a brief blog post, I’d spell this out with examples, and maybe some day I’ll do that, but for now I’ll just say this: I’ve had many conversations with rad-trads and have had no success in persuading them that any non-Catholic thinker has anything meaningful to contribute to their project. If you want to tell them that you agree wth them, they’re happy enough with that, but they’re not interested in finding intellectual resources outside the Catholic tradition (narrowly conceived) or in hearing commentary from outside the Catholic tradition. In other words, though the rad-trads in my experience rarely have anything good to say about Vatican II, they are the children (or grandchildren) of ressourcement.

More power to them, I guess — but I say that with a bit of sadness, because that older conservative tradition which they repudiate (and may be supplanting) had an interest not just in strengthening the liberal order but also in strengthening ecumenical ties among all Christians, but especially those of the small-o orthodox variety. And it now strikes me that those two projects were closely related: that is, one of the key ways to strengthen the liberal order was through drawing Christians together towards a more unified front, and one of the key ways to pursue ecumenism was through claiming a shared role for all Christians in the liberal order. So I guess the rad-trads have decided that if you want to get rid of the one you have to ditch the other as well.

There may be other factors as well: for instance, many of the rad-trads are converts to Catholicism, and continuing to value anything from the Reformation traditions might feel like a less-than-complete submission to Mother Church. (Dunno. Can’t read minds.) But in any case, I hope that in the next few years they’ll rethink their approach.

Just a couple of examples: Can the pro-life cause really thrive if Catholics and evangelicals don’t work together? Is it really the case that, as the aforelinked Tradinista Manifesto suggests, contemporary Western militarism can only be challenged by “the traditional requirements of the Church’s just war theory”? Might not the Mennonite tradition have something to say to Catholics — even rad-trad Catholics?

All this to say: I continue to think that, given what we’re collectively facing in this dark time, we Christians need one another — and need one another in intellectual collaboration as well as in common prayer. It would make me very happy if more of my Catholic friends agreed.

Another Week Ends (in Charlottesville) 

Well, for starters, I am (we are) still very much dealing with the local fallout. I’m referring to the incredibly kind teaching aide at my son’s elementary school who was jumped and beaten because of his skin color, and wondering if he’s going to be able to make it to the first day of class next week.

I’m thinking of my friend’s daughter who is still in the hospital down the road after being hit by that car and is waiting for a bed to free up at the facility closer to where she lives before she can be transferred. I’m thinking about her hospital bills.

I’m thinking of my Jewish bartender friend who never in a million years dreamed he’d be waking up to shouts of “First stop Charlottesville, last stop Auschwitz”. I’m hoping he doesn’t move away.

I’m thinking about the battering ram-barricade device that the antifa so kindly left on our church property for us to dispose of. You know, the one with the graffiti of the bloodied, beheaded frog.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that we had to inform the police chief that placing snipers on the church roof might not send the right message.

And I’m wondering how on Earth I’m going to preach a sermon this Sunday — and how much more impossible that would be were the lectionary readings not so miraculously pertinent.

David Zahl

the post-Christian culture wars

In his great book God’s Long Summer, Charles Marsh demonstrates that the Civil Rights struggle in the Deep South was largely an intra-Christian dispute. From the sainted Fannie Lou Hamer to Sam Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi, to the “white moderates” Martin Luther King, Jr. warned us about his his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” all parties involved articulated their positions in reference to Christian scriptures and some broader account of the Christian Gospel.

How far we have come. As Joe Carter explains,

As many conservative Christians on social media can attest, the alt-right seems to have a particular disdain for gospel-centered Christianity. (For examples see here, here, here, and here.) Some on the alt-right (such as Vox Day) claim that Christianity is a “foundational pillar” of the movement. But what they mean by Christianity is often a heretical form (Day rejects the Trinity) a racialized version of the faith (e.g., the Kinist movement), or “religion as culture” (Spencer says he is both an atheist and a “culture Christian.”). The true religion of the alt-right is white identitarianism, which is why the SBC accurately considers it an “anti-gospel” movement.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the political spectrum, it’s pretty clear — see for instance this excellent report by Emma Green — the the Black Lives Matter movement is also largely post-Christian, with little interest in and occasional hostility to the African-American church, which BLM activists often see as weak and ineffective — or simply irrelevant.

It wasn’t that long ago that Andrew Sullivan was denouncing “Christianist” movements as a threat to our republic — something I debated with him here and here, even getting him to admit that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a “left Christianist” and to that extent problematic. (Andrew’s response has been moved here.) For Andrew in 2011, the “Christianist takeover” of the GOP was complete.

Again: how far we have come. And in a very short time.

Ross Douthat once said to people on the left that if they hated the Religious Right, they should just wait to see the Post-Religious Right. We all saw it in Charlottesville yesterday. When political movements paid even lip service to the Christian Gospel, they had something to remind them of commandments to forgive, to make peace, to love. There were stable moral standards to appeal to, even if activists often squirmed desperately to evade their force. I am far more worried about neo-Nazis than BLM — as you should be too — but when people confront one another, or confront us, who don’t know those commandments, or have contempt for them, the prospects for the healing of this nation don’t look very good. I don’t know what language to use to persuade a white nationalist that those people over there are their neighbors, not vermin to be crushed with an automobile.

ways and means of debate

On the current debate among “small-o orthodox” Christians about sexuality and orthodoxy, I warmly recommend this post by Matthew Lee Anderson. It’s longish but really thoughtful about the key issues. I don’t think I agree with Matthew’s use of the idea of the “grammar” of credal theology, a use he shares with Alastair Roberts, because I fear that it can make Scripture and creed alike into an infinitely reshapeable wax nose: you can quickly move past what it says to focus on what you claim is entailed by its grammar. (Another way to put it: I am made uneasy by this mode of theology for the same reasons I am made uneasy by Newman’s view of “development of doctrine.”) But the argument is well-made and worth considering.

Anyway, I just want to make one brief comment about my participation in this whole business. I have had almost nothing to say about the substantive theological and moral issues at stake because my primary concern here is not the “what” but the “how”: how we handle disagreement. There’s an important sense in which our means need to be upstream of our ends.

One of the major themes of my forthcoming book How to Think is the fruitlessness of arguments badly conducted. When we treat those we disagree with as necessarily wicked or stupid, when we forbid to “their side” practices that we cheerfully allow to “our side,” when we recklessly (and sometimes quite intentionally) misconstrue those who disagree with us, then genuine argument never happens: we descend into shouted recriminations.

Of course, many people are perfectly happy with shouted recriminations. But Christians are forbidden that. As I have reflected on these matters in the past couple of years — and I’ve spent a lot of time in such reflection — I have been struck by just how consistently concerned the New Testament is with proper responses to conflict. We are told, by Jesus in the Gospels and by the apostles in their letters, how to respond when we are attacked and vilified by those outside the “household of faith” and how to deal with various kinds of conflict within that household. Almost all of what I’ve written in the last year or so about the current disputes has been focused on the need to be obedient to these teachings.

One of the most famous passages in the whole of Scripture, but one that almost no one seems to find relevant to the current debates, is this: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” I just wish that before leaping into any fray — especially if it’s conducted on social media, given the online disinhibition effect — my fellow Christians would just spend just five minutes meditating on that passage.

orthodoxy, heresy, and definitions

Maybe this will help to clarify some matters concerning the definition of “orthodoxy.” Jamie Smith aroused a lot of outrage when he asked, “Do you really want to claim that Christians who affirm all of the historic markers of orthodoxy but disagree with you on matters of sexual morality or nonviolence or women in office are heretics?” And I aroused the same outrage when I said he had made a good point. Both of us were accused of having demoted sexual ethics to the realm of adiaphora by saying that people who are wrong about controversial matters of sexual ethics are not ipso facto heretics (though they could of course be heretics for other reasons) — even though we both insisted that we were not saying that sexuality is a matter of theological and moral indifference.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that heresy is a particular kind of sin: it is one of the sins against faith:

There are various ways of sinning against faith:

Voluntary doubt about the faith disregards or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief. Involuntary doubt refers to hesitation in believing, difficulty in overcoming objections connected with the faith, or also anxiety aroused by its obscurity. If deliberately cultivated doubt can lead to spiritual blindness.

Incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.”

One of the things that should be immediately clear from reading this is that people often use the term heresy in contexts where incredulity would be far more appropriate. But I want to make a more general point here. Various people commented, in reply to Jamie and me, that since the credal orthodoxy we emphasize doesn’t say anything about genocide or necrophilia then I guess those are totally compatible with orthodoxy, huh?

To which I reply: I think you’re making a category error. Genocide and necrophilia are indeed sins but they aren’t sins against faith — they belong in different categories, as the Catechism suggests. Orthodoxy is “right belief,” right doxa, and people can be disciplined by or excluded from the community of Christians for holding wrong beliefs; but they can also be disciplined and excluded for committing sins that aren’t about wrong belief at all. They may simply be, as the old prayer book has it, “notorious evil livers.”

You can redefine orthodoxy to mean “Everything that a Christian is supposed to believe and do, and nothing that a Christian is not supposed to believe and do,” and if you redefine it that way then all sin is indeed heresy; but I think that disables you from making some very useful distinctions, the sorts of distinctions that the Catechism frequently makes. And in light of those distinctions a person could indeed commit genocide without being a heretic. He would just be a great and terrible sinner.

Now, to be sure, you could also create an elaborate theory justifying genocide or necrophilia, and hold to it in defiance of the biblical witness or church teaching, and in that case you really would be a heretic. But most people who sin (whether against faith or against charity or against anything else) don’t have such elaborate theories: they’re simply wrong.

But, and this is something I’ve complained about before, nobody is just wrong any more. Everyone you disagree with is a heretic, an infidel, a false teacher, not a Christian at all!! I really think we could make a lot of progress in our debates if we we recovered the category of plain old wrongness. But, failing that, let’s at least recognize the differences betweens sins against faith and other kinds of sin.

Quick addendum to this morning’s posts: I’ve already heard from several Catholic friends and emailers that my comments and caveats and recommendations have no force because the Church has spoken on these matters. Yeah, I know. But I’m not Catholic, so that’s not dispositive for me. Odd that this needs to be said, but apparently it does. Those of us who don’t have a Magisterium have to approach these matters in a different way: there’s nothing that we can point to and say: That settles it. People try to do that with Scripture, of course, but, as my earlier posts demonstrate, without achieving consensus. So my argument about who should or should not be excommunicated is directed to those of us who have already been excommunicated by Rome.* I’ll try to be more explicit about such matters in the future. 

*Note to Catholic friends who will say, “You mean ‘who have excommunicated themselves by their disobedience to the Magisterium’”: I know about that too. What I have written I have written.** 

**Note to Catholic friends who think it’s ironic that I use that phrase: I’m still one step ahead of you. 

“Why is this even a question?”

Imagine a pacifist to a just-war theorist: “Jesus says, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers.’ Jesus says, ‘Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.’ Why is this even a question?”

Imagine a certain kind of gender-traditionalist when his pastor assigns women to read Scripture in services: “Paul says ‘Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak.’ Why is this even a question?”

Imagine someone with a very different view of, for example, the ordination of women: “Paul says that in Christ there is no longer male and female.’ Why is this even a question?”

I have had such thoughts many times: Why are we even debating this? Why is this even a point of contention? How can any Christian be confused or uncertain about this? Why is this even a question? We might be tempted to say, “I wish this question hadn’t arisen in my time.” To which a wise man might reply, “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

For some there are no puzzles about what to do with the time that is given us: “Paul says, Do not ‘associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral.’ Why is this even a question?” The best answer I can give is that it’s a question because Christians now disagree about what in fact constitutes “sexual immorality.” (And not just about homosexuality: consider the debates about polygamy and masturbation that have persisted in various parts of the Christian world.) In the face of such disagreement, one might reply, Paul says we’re supposed to be, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

There are always questions. Which ones arise — that’s not for us to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the questions that are presented to us. My one consistent position in all these matters is to resist taking the nuclear option of excommunication. It is the strongest censure we have, and therefore one not to be invoked except with the greatest reluctance. Further, I don’t think the patience that St. Paul commands is to be exhausted in a few years, or even a few decades. We need to learn to think in larger chunks of time, and to consider the worldwide, not just the local American and Western European, context. Many of us tend to think that if we haven’t convinced someone after a few tweets and blog posts that we can be done with them and the questions they bring. But the time-frame of social media is not the time-frame of Christ’s Church.

In addition to the matter of time, there is also the matter of scale to consider. As I have argued before — see here for example — the notion that our sexual preferences must be respected and affirmed is simply an instance of the larger claim that each of us is, as Milton’s Satan puts it, “self-begot.” That claim is the wellspring of what has become a comprehensive ideology: a framework of belief and practice so obvious that no argument need ever be made for it. And in my judgment that ideology is so powerful and living — organic, growing, having a mind of its own — that it should rightly be designated one of the Powers, the archas, the kosmokratoras, about which I have written a bit here. Some of the people who support the Christian legitimacy of same-sex unions have actual theological and biblical arguments to make, which should be responded to in kind; but for many others that legitimacy is guaranteed simply by the theos tou aiōnos, the god of this age. They believe in sexual self-determination because that is what is believed.

The god of this age, like all Powers, is not easily dislodged from its throne, and Christians should expect the battle to be a long one. This calls for patience in more than one venue: patience in awaiting the vindication of the saints, but also patience with those who have spent their whole lives in thrall to that Power whose proper name is I-am-my-own. And we should be especially cautious in casting out those whom we see to be so in thrall because there is a very great chance that that Power exerts far greater sway over us than we are able to realize. When we focus on disciplining the errors of individuals, we are often — not always, but often — considering neither the scope (in time and space) of the issues under debate nor the beams that, in this present darkness, have made their way into our own eyes.

As Ephraim Radner has pointed out somewhere, one thing that Christians have in common is that we’ve all been excommunicated by other Christians. Given the repeated commands throughout the New Testament to seek oneness in Christ, I don’t see how we can be complacent about that shared condition, or eager to continue the practices that led to it. In the long war with the god of this world, oneness is our greatest strength, and we must always be seeking it. Divisions will inevitably come, and some of them will be necessary; but woe be unto us through whom unnecessary divisions come.

We must look for every possible way to remain in communion with one another, to work together for the cause of the Gospel; we must separate from one another only with great reluctance, and after the long exercise of Christ-like patience: we must imitate the God who is lastingly patient with us. And when we decide that must separate, basic obedience demands that we immediately begin seeking ways to restore our fellowship. These are among the marks of the true Church, I believe.

on sexuality and the grammar of orthodoxy

Alastair Roberts says that Jamie Smith “den[ies] the place of the creed in teaching us Christian morality”; what Smith actually says is that “that conciliar standards of orthodoxy do not articulate” the traditional understanding of sexual morality, which is incontestably true, isn’t it? I seriously doubt that Smith would in any way dissent from Roberts’s claim that “the creed is the touchstone of Christian ethics, the document disclosing its true grammar.” Roberts seems to have fundamentally misconstrued Smith’s post as being about the sources of Christian ethics, when in fact it is about the way we use the term “orthodoxy.”

I believe that Roberts is absolutely right to suggest that the grammar of credal orthodoxy is a generative one, from which the whole of Christian ethics emerges. But it does not inevitably do this in obvious ways, ways that Christians are generally agreed about. Smith’s example of pacifism is a telling one. For the Christian pacifist, the very heart of the credal grammar is that in Christ God is at work reconciling the world to himself, and that therefore the whole life of the Church is to participate in that reconciliation, which enjoins a steadfast refusal of armed conflict. For the Christian pacifist, the Christian who believes that wars can be just has simply failed to grasp that credal grammar. And yet most Christian pacifists do not say that just-war Christians fall outside the scope of orthodoxy. And I think they don’t say this because they recognize the difference between grammatical rules that are explicitly stated and the consequences that implicitly follow from those rules.

The argument about whether Christians are permitted to participate in war can therefore be conducted within the ecclesia, within the koinonia of those who belong to Christ. But this does not in any way imply or suggest that the questions at stake are adiaphora, matters about which we can simply “agree to disagree.” They must be worked out with fear and trembling, and we must face the fact that some people in the debate are seriously and consequentially wrong.

This example shows that by noting that a particular issue does not fall within the boundaries of credal orthodoxy one is not thereby condemning it to insignificance. Smith makes this point explicitly. But I think that many of the people who want to say that sexuality is a “first-order issue” for the church are afraid that that’s what’s going on — and in many cases they’re exactly right. Many, many people really do want to claim that since sexuality is not addressed in the creeds it’s something about which we can expect and tolerate a virtually infinite range of opinions. But to deem questions of sexuality adiaphora, no less than dumping questions of war and peace in the same class, would be a tragic error and a complete abdication of Christian ethics.

That said, I just don’t think we can avoid that tragic error by claiming credal status for traditional (what I would call biblical) sexual ethics. I say this for three reasons:

1) We cannot logically and consistently elevate sexual ethics in this way without doing the same for other positions (on war and peace, on slavery, on usury, etc.) which have similarly been claimed by many Christians as being necessarily generated by the grammar of the creeds.

2) To say that sexual ethics is a “first-order issue” on a par with the creeds themselves is inevitably to decenter the creeds themselves: to see them as having failed to specify, to make explicit, absolutely essential matters. They then become creatures of their time and place, products of the disputes that just happened to dominate their moment in history, rather than documents of permanent, binding validity for later Christians. This implies a lower pneumatology and a lower ecclesiology than I believe is healthy.

3) The flip side of the previous point is this: by declaring the issues that most occupy us at the moment, and most occupy us at the moment thanks largely to our mass media, as “first-order issues” for the whole of Christ’s Church in all times and places, we are courting parochialism and presentism. We should, instead, have the humility to wait to see if the whole of Christ’s Church, acting in conciliar unity, agrees with us. Perhaps we can argue that it should: perhaps we can call for a new Ecumenical Council. (And if our disputes over sexuality have the effect of bringing about the kind of unity in Christ that would make a new Ecumenical Council possible, it will have been a blessing in disguise.)

But as it stands we are living through in-between times, what Auden calls “the Time Being,” and as he notes, “To those who have seen / The Child, however dimly, however incredulously, / The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.” When we believe our brothers and sisters in Christ are wrong, terribly wrong, about sexuality, let us borrow a strategy from so many Christian pacifists over the centuries and tell them they’re wrong — without telling them that they’re not our brothers and sisters — without casting them out of the koinonia. That would be the easy path, the simple path, but not, I am convinced, the Christ-like path.

a homily to remember by Jessica Martin

The preacher in most Anglican traditions works under strict time constraints: what one has to offer must be given in just a few minutes. When anything of substance gets said in such a brief compass, it is a great blessing. Also: when a sermon of any length works from poems or stories in ways that are richly theological and deeply biblical, that too is a great blessing. And when a single briefly sermon uses literature imaginatively, unexpectedly, and profoundly … Well. The following homily was preached a few days ago by Jessica Martin, residentiary canon at Ely Cathedral. I am posting it here with her permission. 


Southern Cathedrals Festival Eucharist: Feast of Mary Magdalene, 22nd July 2017

1st lesson:  2 Cor. 5.14-17 

Gospel: John 20.1-2,11-18

 

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. Jn.20.11 

 

May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

She turned her eyes towards him for the first time… — & he was looking at her with all the Power & Keenness, which she beleived no other eyes than his, possessed…. — It was a silent, but a very powerful Dialogue; — on his side, Supplication, on her’s acceptance . — Still, a little nearer  — and a hand taken and pressed — [and her name, spoken] — bursting forth in the fullness of exquisite feeling — and all Suspense & Indecision were over. — They were re-united.   They were restored to all that had been lost.

Only — it wasn’t like that, quite, — was it? Perfect happiness, the same writer observed, even in memory, is not common.  Yet how the soul yearns for that moment, for the overplus of bliss that comes when you turn, blinded by tears, and your beloved that you thought lost for ever is there before you speaking your name, and you say, ‘How could it ever have been otherwise?  My life has been a dream until now. How was it that I did not know that you were there all the time?’

The dying woman who, in Winchester, in the relentlessly rainy spring of 1817, wrote that scene of fulfilment beyond loss, was of course Jane Austen.  We mark the bicentenary of her death this year at the time and place of her dying. Some among you will recognise the encounter as being from the close of her last novel Persuasion, but some will not know it — because she discarded the draft. She was unhappy with the ending she had written and replaced it instead with one of more indirection, where a letter stands in for the ‘silent, but very powerful Dialogue’ and the fulfilment of the plot upon words only overheard. Neither touch, nor voice is retained in the moment of reconciliation as it went to press, months after Jane Austen herself was dead and buried. The body was absent. Clear-eyed and unsparing to the last, she would not allow herself even the dream of so impossible a meeting. The most she would allow us to see of immediate, passionate felicity was the sensation of an ‘overpowering happiness’ in solitude as her character, Anne Elliott, read to herself words of love.

Yet the prospect of fulfilment beyond absolute loss stands like a promise and we cannot look away. The novel, a literary form which has dominated our cultural imaginations for the two-and-a-half centuries since Austen’s lifetime, offers that fulfilment in terms of marriage.  On the last pages of novel after novel, the apparently impossible union — whether for emotional, or family, or even more often economic reasons — proves miraculously possible after all.  Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester. Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth.

The marriage plot’s satisfactions are so potent that readers across those centuries have been outraged when, exceptionally, such human fulfilment is withheld by the author — by Charlotte Bronte in Villette, for example, where the marriage between M. Heger and Lucy Snowe is frustrated by a probably-fatal storm at sea, or in Anthony Trollope’s The Small House at Allington, where Lily’s constancy to her Adolphus survives her discovery that he is selfish and shallow, and brings her to remain single even though she is passionately loved by another decent man she will never accept. In making that choice to be single, Lily allows herself to subsist beyond the fleeting moment of fulfilled desire, beyond that vision of youth and beauty and pleasure, into tiredness, old age and mortality. She stops being a cipher of promise and becomes fully human. Marriage can only be guaranteed to be absolute fulfilment if you stop time on the wedding day.

So it is that marriage is only ever a metaphor — though a powerful one — for fulfilment, pointing beyond itself to a love which is both more elusive and more durable. When Mary stands weeping in the garden she is more like the single Jane, dying in discomfort during a rain-filled summer on the three chairs she allowed herself in order to leave the sofa for her grandmother to lie upon, alone in the contemplation of her mortality and keeping others at a distance with stoical letter-writing. Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth are pleasant fantasies, not part of the realities of life. It is death, not love, which beckons at the end of the long vista of patient endurance.

That, at any rate, is the human point of view.

But — from now on, we regard no one from a human point of view. We cannot avoid being the one who stands weeping outside the tomb; Christ has died for all; therefore all have died. Mary Magdalene, associated traditionally with all the betrayals and bad faith that go with an over-reliance upon human desire, yearns beyond it to a love which seems extinguished by death. She stands by a tomb puzzlingly empty yet peopled by angels who ask the crazy question, ‘Why are you weeping?’ For Mary, the absence of the beloved body, marred by death and empty of its spirit, is not a sign of resurrection but a final cruelty. She had hoped to care for that body, to wrap it in linen and honour it with spices — not because it would do any good, but because love is like that. ‘They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him’.  She has been cheated of any direct encounter, and cannot hope even for a love-letter.

But then she turns around. She turns away from the tomb, and towards a living presence she cannot as yet name, and which has not as yet named her. This is, for a moment, a ‘silent, but very powerful Dialogue’. The person before her asks her the same question as the angels; she gives him the same answer; nothing new has yet happened. The point of recognition is when he calls her by name — and all Suspense & Indecision were over. They were reunited. They were restored to all that had been lost.

Yet this Now, this joy, is also ‘not yet’.  It is not only fulfilment — it is promise, it is something still happening and still growing.  ‘Do not hold on to me’, says the risen Jesus, ‘…go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’  And Mary  Magdalene becomes transformed from weeping woman to messenger and witness: she went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’.  If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

In our human point of view, we cannot avoid standing with Mary. Loss is real, and death is the certain vista for every life, the standing condition for every hope.  But look at your life carefully. Study the tomb by which you mourn and wonder why it is empty, full not of corruption but of animated light which asks you the question, why are you weeping? Someone in your life is standing behind you, waiting for you to turn.  When you look away from the tomb and towards the presence, what might happen next?  What could happen? On his side, Supplication, on her’s acceptance.  Somebody is speaking your name.  And you think, amazed: How could it ever have been otherwise?  My life has been a dream until now. How was it that I did not know that you were there all the time?

Amen.

“I have Calculated and the time is nigh”

— Brenna Bychowski, via John Overholt on Twitter

the healing to come

The fact that the body, and locality and locomotion and time, now feel irrelevant to the highest reaches of the spiritual life is (like the fact that we can think of our bodies as ‘coarse’) a symptom. Spirit and Nature have quarrelled in us; that is our disease. Nothing we can yet do enables us to imagine its complete healing. Some glimpses and faint hints we have: in the Sacraments, in the use made of sensuous imagery by the great poets, in the best instances of sexual love, in our experiences of the earth’s beauty. But the full healing is utterly beyond our present conceptions. Mystics have got as far in contemplation of God as the point at which the senses are banished: the further point, at which they will be put back again, has (to the best of my knowledge) been reached by no one.

– C. S. Lewis, Miracles

Handy-Dandy Benedict Option Flowchart

I see Rod is still engaging his critics, and now we’re into the deep weeds of just how important Obergefell is or is not for the future of American Christianity, something about which I don’t have any firm opinion. I wonder whether it might not be possible to simplify the issues at stake a bit, and in that cause I have prepared the following chart. You’re welcome.

 

no feelings may be hurt

Suppose, I asked the students, an observant Jew has a florist shop. One day, a customer, who is also Jewish, comes to the shop to say she’s getting married and would like the florist to do the wedding. “That’s wonderful,” the florist says. “Where will you get married?” The customer replies that the wedding will be at a local nondenominational church, because her fiancé is Christian, and she, the customer, isn’t very observant. The florist thinks about it and then says, “I’m so sorry, but I can’t do your wedding. It’s nothing personal; I’m sure your fiancé is a fine person, as are you. It’s just that as an observant Jew I don’t approve of interfaith weddings. For our community to survive, we must avoid intermarriage and assimilation. Please understand. There are many other florists who can do your wedding. I’ll even suggest some. But I can’t, in good conscience, participate, myself.” What result?

In posing this hypothetical, I was not so interested in how the case would come out under current law. Rather, in good law-school fashion, I was trying to show the students that these are complicated questions and that they need to consider both sides. Much to my surprise, the students were uniformly unsympathetic to the florist. There should be no right to decline services in this situation, they told me. The florist was not acting reasonably and in good faith. […]

Conservatives often assume that controversies like Masterpiece Cakeshop reflect changing sexual norms and an intolerance of resistance. That’s correct, in part; one definitely senses a “you-lost-get-over-it” sentiment on the other side. And yet, the students’ reaction to my hypothetical case suggests that something else is going on as well, that the dispute is not about sexuality as such. Rather, it’s about not allowing people to draw moral distinctions that exclude others and hurt their feelings, no matter what the justification. That’s what the florist was doing in my hypothetical case—and that, I think, was what bothered the students.

Mark Movsesian, St. John’s Law School, New York. A fascinating case study for people who tend to think these disputes are all about the sexual revolution. As it turns out, and as I have sometimes suggested, demand for the affirmation of sexual choices may simply be an example of a greater demand, that for the affirmation of all the self’s choices. The real principles here are (a) I am my own and (b) the purpose of society is to empower and affirm my claim that I am my own.

the shooting gallery

Day and night addicted people come and go by the dozens through once-boarded windows. Some get high and collapse onto mattresses. Some come looking for prostitutes. Others have made it a home. Even in the depths of addiction, they are drawn to the familiar, the normal. First, a library lawn, now a church.

“I know it’s probably not the right thing to do,” said Josh Green, who is 28 and originally from Kensington. For three months he has been sleeping on blankets in the filth of a lower church office. “But I honestly feel a little more comfortable because I know I am in God’s house.”

— Once the Cathedral of Kensington, now a heroin shooting gallery

The Burial of the Dead

The Christian church has another narrative, but we must teach it to ourselves over and over repeatedly, or the world will run away with it altogether. For at least fifty years, the majority of clergy in the majority of congregations have allowed the church’s teaching about death and funerals to deteriorate, and have let the traditional burial service slip away in favor of any number of generic, syncretistic intrusions. Returning to the power of the Christian gospel in life and in death is not only an affirmation; as such, it is a form of resistance to the story that the secular spiritualists are telling us. My husband and I are preparing to put our funeral wishes on file with the church from which we will be buried. The list will include such things as the presence of the body in the church (covered with the church’s funeral pall), real pallbearers (not undertakers), a significant sermon about death and resurrection, strong hymns, no “eulogies,” and the conspicuous absence of the phrase “a celebration of the life of…” on the front page of the program. In the Book of Common Prayer, the service is called “The Burial of the Dead.” If that is too stark, a fine alternative is “A Service of Witness to the Resurrection.”

The Rev. Fleming Rutledge

the Gospel as narrative attractor

What I am finding is that the gospel, as a narrative, seems to function as a kind of attractor for me while I am telling stories. Without deliberately alluding to it, or meaning consciously to create any kind of counterpart of it, I seem to keep tracing around it, to keep drawing out partial, wandering, approximate, sometimes parodic or borderline-blasphemous outlines of its shape. Give me a story about a stranger who comes to town and instantly there, nearby, is the possibility that he may be a sin-eater or scapegoat, in some kind of redemptive relation to the ills, individual and shared, of the place he comes to. Give me a comedy of human fallibility, and I start to wonder whether the wisdom of God may be at work in it as well as the foolishness of man; but I also find myself reaching for some of the black paste of tragedy to stir in, because of the Christian story’s insistence on the mortal stakes for which we human idiots play. Conversely, give me a tragedy, and I seem to start tilting it towards laughter, because of the awareness that Easter Sunday follows Good Friday. It’s a tragi-comic religion, Christianity, hopelessly mixed in genre—the only one I know that ends with a death sentence and then a wedding.

Francis Spufford

When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness. The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness. Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction, this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns. The mania for punishment will therefore get worse before it gets better.

inward isolation

Are we to live in an age in which every mechanical facility for communication between man and man is multiplied ten-thousandfold, only that the inward isolation, the separation of those who meet continually, may be increased in a far greater measure?

— F. D. Maurice, 1848

walking apart, walking together

When Christian communities decide that they must, for whatever reason, walk apart, then the question that they should all be prepared to answer is this: What are you doing to make it possible to walk together again? For to treat the decision to walk apart as the end of the story is simply to mock the prayer of Jesus that we all be one, even as he and the Father are one. It is the grossest disobedience.

So I have been very pleased to read some reflections on the recent conference at Nashotah House, Living Sacrifices: Repentance, Reconciliation, and Renewal. For instance, this post by Mac Stewart quotes Rowan Williams describing the thought of Michael Ramsey:

It is more attractive to go in quest of the real Church than to seek for the pattern of Cross and Resurrection in the heart of where we happen to find ourselves. But Ramsey implicitly warns us that the quest can be a way back to the self-defining and self-protective religious institution that always distorts or stifles the gospel. Somewhere in this is a very substantial paradox — that the harder we search for a Church that is pure and satisfactory by our definition, the less likely we are to find it.

In another post, Clint Wilson writes,

During the last year, in particular, I have become increasingly engaged and grounded in ecumenical theology, having studied various ecumenical texts and developed several ecumenical relationships. I am a child among giants in this arena, but I trust my newfound passion for this area of work will endure throughout the course of my ministry. Given my experience on the inside of both the ACNA and TEC, it seems to me there are several items in the ecumenical toolbox that might be employed for the hard work of reconciliation between Anglicans, especially within the Anglican Communion. For instance, at a symposium held at the Pontifical Gregorian University last October, Dr. Paula Gooder of King’s College, London, called for an “ecumenism of wounded hands,” a recognition that “we cannot heal ourselves.” Her call is predicated on the notion that our healing is incomplete (and therefore is not gospel healing), until it includes the healing that comes through reconciliation with those from whom we are divided. The cross does not need to be protected, it needs to be invoked, carried, embedded, and embodied across our divisions.

Bishop George Sumner suggests,

Amid protracted international debate, mission in communion can and should continue at the grassroots. Parishes, dioceses, and provinces maintaining initiatives of mission in communion across lines of difference are their own kind of sign of reconciliation. Obedience to the risen Christ’s command to go is as much lived out from the bottom up as the top down. This on-going and local mission in communion is a valid dimension of our common life and vocation.

Zachary Guiliano asks some penetrating questions:

God does not call us merely to submit to the counsel of our friends. That would be too light a thing, and hardly cruciform. He calls us to submit to the oppressive, perhaps even arbitrary and mysterious, judgment of our enemies, even if they are our Christian sisters and brothers, baptized all. God does not call us merely to live within the constraints of communion. He summons us to come and die for those who would deny communion, in this way to give our Yes to every No — dying to self, dying to and for the world, dying for the sake of our enemies, taking up our cross and following him. Only then, perhaps, will he raise again the weeping ruins of our division.

And so I close with a final set of questions: How far will we go in pursuing communion? Will we go even to the cross?

Guiliano’s talk was a response to an address by Ephraim Radner, and I will conclude by quoting it:

The road together, at this stage of Christian history, begins in several places. But it leads and must lead to others, so that a convergence of ways can indeed finally include one flock and one Shepherd (John 10:16). Full and visible unity, as the 1961 New Delhi Report of the World Council of Churches emphasized over and over again as the necessarily and inevitable goal of Christian ecclesial life. Benedict XVI used this phrase — “to work tirelessly to rebuild the full and visible unity of all Christ’s followers” — to describe his pontificate. But the vocation is Anglicanism’s as well, and so it must begin with us too. Both the vocation and the promise laid out by the Covenant remain real and compelling in this general way: we have been given a charism to maintain and extend the communion of God’s transformative life in the midst of a world of instability, fragmentation, and now, in its wake, of swirling meaninglessness. The charism is given for the sake of others.

All these words challenge me — some of them even judge me and find me wanting, and I acknowledge the power of that judgment — but they also encourage me. I commend them to any, and not just Anglicans, who prayerfully seek the oneness of the Church of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel of Taylorism in Truro

Via Archbishop Cranmer I learn that the Anglican Diocese of Truro in Cornwall is looking for a new employee. The good Archbishop is exercised by this phrase in the advert: “You do not need to be a practising Christian.” Well, that might well be something to be exercised about — but look at the overall job description:

The Strategic Programme Manager will be responsible for leading and managing the Transforming Mission programme from initial set up through to successful delivery. This role requires an individual with exceptional project management skills including the ability to successfully manage stakeholders; implement change and balance multiple projects simultaneously.

The scope of the role incorporates both the strategic leadership of the Transforming Mission programme — first in Falmouth, and then in other parts of Cornwall; and the project management of key programme elements including the establishment of the Student Hub (café) and redevelopment of the Resource Church.

Reading that description, I see quite clearly why you need not be a Christian to do the job: it has nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity, and in fact may be incompatible with that other religion. What the Diocese of Truro wants to do is practice modern administrative management in the way that monks pray the Hours: purely, for its own sake, and with a studied indifference to any everyday notions of cause and effect, means and ends, purposes. It’s admirable, in a way: it is rare to see the Gospel of Taylorism followed with such apostolic zeal. In the Diocese of Truro there are no human beings, still less creatures made in the image of God who need to be reconciled to that God; there are only “stakeholders” who must be managed, change that must be implemented, projects that must be balanced, programs that must be strategized — and then, on the last day, we hope for “successful delivery.” (Though those who ask of what and to what shall be cast into outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.)

So, in short, not a job for a practicing Christian at all. After all, no one can serve both God and Strategic Programme Management.

“the spoils of death’s conquered empire”

Since, therefore, we see in [Jesus Christ] qualities so human that they stand in no way apart from the common weakness of mortals, and qualities so divine that they befit nothing except that highest and ineffable nature which is deity, the human intellect is seized with perplexity and so silenced with amazement that it cannot tell where to go, what to think, or where to turn. If it discerns God, what it sees is a mortal. If it thinks him a human being, what it perceives is one returning from the dead bearing the spoils of death’s conquered empire.

. . . Obviously, to set all this forth for people and explain it in speech far exceeds the power at once of our deservings, our talents, and our words. I judge, however, that it surpassed the capacity of even the holy apostles; indeed, when all is said, the explanation of this mystery may reach even beyond the whole created order of the heavenly powers.

— Origen of Alexandria, De Principiis, Book II, Chapter 6, “On the Incarnation of Christ”

the smell of strawmen burning

I enjoy talking with Rusty Reno — as I did just yesterday, here in Waco! — but he is, I have learned over the years, a frustrating person to argue with in print, because he doesn’t respond to what you write, but rather what he thinks you must have meant, or, worse, what he thinks someone of your type must inevitably mean.

Case in point: writing here in response to this article of mine, he writes:

Jacobs exemplifies the all-or-nothing approach to politics characteristic of Evangelicals. Seeking a theological voice in the public square, Evangelicals are tempted to discern direct divine warrants for their political judgments. This can lead someone to speak of God anointing Donald Trump to save our nation, and thus implying that no Christian in good conscience could have voted for anyone other than Trump. Alan Jacobs and other Evangelicals (Peter Wehner is a notable instance) are mirror images, describing Trump in ways approaching divine condemnation, implying that no Christian in good conscience could have voted for Trump.

In fact, more than half of my essay is devoted to a critique of the very “all-or-nothing approach” that Rusty says I exemplify. (Maybe he only read the parts of it that concerned him.) And here’s what I write in the conclusion to that essay:

What is required of serious religious believers in a pluralistic society is the ability to code-switch: never to forget or neglect their own native religious tongue, but also never to forget that they live in a society of people for whom that language is gibberish. To speak only in the language of pragmatism is to bring nothing distinctive to the table; to speak only a private language of revelation and self-proclaimed authority is to leave the table altogether. For their own good, but also for the common good, religious believers need to be always bilingually present.

Does that sound like an “all-or-nothing approach” to politics? You could only say so if you weren’t paying attention — perhaps because you think you know what “Evangelicals” are like. (Rusty typically says “Evangelicals” the way Victorian civil servants said “Hottentots.” The first thing Rusty ever said to me, many years ago, was that a talk I gave — on a subject that did not touch on evangelicalism at any point — reminded him why he’s not an Evangelical. One of the chief themes of his essay seems to be that, while he supported Trump — vigorously — he didn’t do it for the reasons that Evangelicals did.)

On another matter: Rusty writes, “Christians have theological reasons for not theologizing their political judgments.” Whether that’s true or not depends on what Rusty means by the odd word “theologizing.” If he means that Christians have theological reasons for not making their public arguments in explicitly theological language, then he’s simply restating my claim that “religious believers in a pluralistic society” should remember “that they live in a society of people for whom that language is gibberish.”

But I think he means by not-theologizing something like “not seeking a theocracy,” because from that point he goes on to denounce Christians who “expect the laws of our country to accord with the Sermon on the Mount” — though that is not a position I have ever held. Maybe he’s not even talking about me there, but if not, I don’t know who he is talking about. Does he think that’s the typical view of Hottentots? — I mean, Evangelicals? Hell if I know. All this is just orthogonal to the issues I raise, and the issues that matter. The whole essay, I’m tempted to say, consists of a smokescreen made from burning strawmen.

The sine qua non of this rhetorical strategy comes when Rusty sententiously declares that a post in which I said that I would vote for “the reanimated corpse of Adlai Stevenson” in preference to Donald Trump is deficient in “analytic sobriety.” Can Rusty really be that completely humorless? I would ask him to take a post like that a little more seriously and a little less literally, but I think someone may have used that line before.

So I’ve written a few hundred words here and I still haven’t gotten to any of the really significant issues we could be debating, such as the difference between prudence and pragmatism, or Rusty’s rather astonishing claim that “Trump’s campaign came as close to the platform of European post–World War II Christian democracy as any American candidate for president has come in two generations.” This is what happens when someone ignores what has actually been argued in favor of a fantastical caricature, presumably because the caricature is so much easier to refute. I’ve got a list of seven other ideas Rusty attributes to me that I did not state and do not hold, but it’s too depressing even to contemplate going over those. Whenever Rusty takes the trouble to represent my views accurately, and respond to what I actually argued, I’m ready for a conversation. Until then: as William Blake said, “Enough! Or, Too much.”

on dialogue and normalization

You hear a lot these days from people who refuse to engage in dialogue with others who hold certain views because to converse with them would be to “normalize” or “legitimate” their position. I hear this view articulated most often (a) by people who can’t stand Trump and his supporters, and (b) by conservative Christians who oppose same-sex relationships. What I find odd about both groups is their belief that their inclination or disinclination to converse has some bearing on whether a politician or position or idea lies within the sphere of the “normal.” When a man has been elected President of the United States, then he and his supporters are ipso facto as normal as it gets, and won’t cease to be if the rest of us refuse to speak to them. Ditto with the general acceptance in our society, and increasingly in the church, of same-sex unions.

But aside from the practical, prudential questions, there are larger and genuinely principial matters at stake, and in a post today, Wesley Hill has wonderfully articulated what I believe to be the value of dialogue within the fellowship of baptized Christians:

Why do I agree to do these sorts of dialogues? The first reason is that Justin is “family.” We’re both baptized in the same Triune Name. We both confess the same creed. We both believe the weirdest thing is the deepest truth of the universe: that the crucified and risen Jesus is Lord. I think Justin’s Side A view is wrong and that it is wrong in a way that touches on first-order Christian claims about creation, Christology, and redemption; I also think that when family members hold views you think are that wrong, you keep on loving them and talking with them and seeking to bear witness to what you believe is true and life-giving. Second, for those who are worried, like I am at times, that this sort of dialogue may be a form of capitulation, a form of saying, “I’m convinced of the truth of my view but not so convinced,” let me just add that another reason I want to dialogue with people like Justin is that I want, in whatever minuscule way I can, to help see my own Anglican Communion, and the church more broadly, through its current crisis on sexual ethics. “Dialogue,” so easy to criticize as wishy-washy, need not entail compromise of one’s convictions; it may instead be a way of signaling hope that some future unity-in-truth may be realized in a way I can’t yet fathom. As the Anglican ethicist Oliver O’Donovan has written, “The only thing I concede in committing myself to such a process [of dialogue between ‘gay-affirming’ Christians and ‘traditionalist’ Christians] is that if I could discuss the matter through with an opponent sincerely committed to the church’s authorities, Scripture chief among them, the Holy Spirit would open up perspectives that are not immediately apparent, and that patient and scrupulous pursuit of these could lead at least to giving the problem a different shape—a shape I presume will be compatible with, though not precisely identical to, the views I now hold, but which may also be compatible with some of the views my opponent now holds, even if I cannot yet see how. I do not have to think I may be mistaken about the cardinal points of which I am convinced. The only thing I have to think—and this, surely, is not difficult on such a subject!—is that there are things still to be learned by one who is determined to be taught by Scripture how to read the age in which we live.”

Preach it, my friend. Preach it over and over again.

choices

From all the irrefutable testimonies of human misery there is no logically sound path to the great heavenly Physician; from the fact that we are sick it does not follow that we can be cured. It is possible, as Pascal repeatedly argued, that the human condition, including all its sorrows and evils, as well as its splendours and greatness, is unintelligible and meaningless unless it is seen in the light of sacred history: creation, sin, redemption. If so, it appears that the admissible options are: a meaningful world guided by God, spoilt by men, healed by the Redeemer; or an absurd world, going Nowhere, ending in Nothing, the futile toy of an impersonal Fate which does not distribute punishments and rewards and does not care about good and evil. Promethean atheism might appear, on this assumption, a puerile delusion, an image of a godless world which rushes on to the Ultimate Hilarity.
— Leszek Kolakowski, Religion

one more note on motivated reasoning

This is something I’ve been worrying over, specifically as a Christian, for a long time:

… It seems to me that the people who are really wrestling with Scripture are the ones who are taking its authority seriously. After all, if you don’t believe that the Bible is the word of God, if you believe that these are just historic documents with no particular claim on you or on anybody else, that doesn’t lead you to wrestle with anything. You can just dismiss anything in it that you see that strikes you as being alien or that makes you uncomfortable or that you feel that you can’t endorse.

So it’s quite easy to read a passage of Scripture, decide that it’s not something that you buy into, and then put it aside, unless you have a commitment to the authority of that text. If you have that commitment, it actually pressures you. It puts the screws to you. It makes it very hard for you to have a simple response to it.

Jesus talks to a man who is always referred to in the biblical literature as the rich, young ruler. He tells him, “OK, if you want what I’m giving, if you want the kind of life that I have to offer, then take everything that you have, sell it and give it to the poor.” And this young man walks away sad, because he had great wealth.

I read that passage, and I have to struggle with that, because I’m thinking, “What is this passage demanding of me?” It says something to me, because I believe that Jesus is the Son of God. I believe that he is my Lord and my Savior. He says something like this. I have to ask myself, “What does it mean for me?” So far, I haven’t decided that it means that I have to sell everything I have and give it to the poor, but maybe that’s because I’m an inauthentic or disobedient Christian. Maybe I’m not taking my beliefs seriously enough.

So I can say this is the word of God for me. But that that’s only the beginning of my problems. That actually doesn’t solve problems. That creates a whole set of problems, because I have to work very hard to try to figure out what sort of demand this text is making upon me.

— from an interview I gave thirteen years ago.

mea maxima culpa

I spent a bit of time and energy trying to convince my Catholic friends that Pope Francis’s apparent pastoral relaxation of the rules for admission to Communion in Amoris laetitia was possibly salutary and in any case not that big a deal. But I did not anticipate this. I am so, so sorry. 

a thought on Endo’s Silence

(a comment on this post by Adam Roberts)

… let me just offer one thought about Silence (the novel — like you, I haven’t seen the movie)…. Rodrigues had always thought of himself as a Sidney Carton kind of hero, and had in a sense prepared himself for Cartonesque acts — but not for the choices he ended up facing. The key to his character, I think, is that he had always (Endo makes this clear) believed that it’s not wrong for the poor native Christians, weak as they are, to trample the fumie, but it’s wrong for him because he is a priest of God, a missionary, one presumably equipped for every challenge. It almost doesn’t matter whether he ends up trampling on the fumie or not, because his entire self-understanding is (I’m using the word advisedly) crucified by the mere fact that he has no idea what the right thing to do is. Is that really Christ telling him to trample? If so, then Christian faithfulness is not what Rodrigues always thought it was. Is it a false Christ, an apparition of his tormented mind giving him a way out? If so, then Rodrigues is not the Christian he always thought he was. The shift at the end to third-person narration is (to borrow your term) a withdrawal, but perhaps of a different kind: perhaps a gracious and compassionate turning away from the utter destruction of this man’s whole self-image.

For what it’s worth, I always think of Rodrigues in contrast to Isabella in Measure for Measure, who is given by Angelo a very similar choice: Do this thing you believe wrong or someone you care about will die. And Isabella never for a moment hesitates: “More than our brother is our chastity.“ Rodrigues may be (indeed is, in several ways) a miserable failure, but I’d rather be Rodrigues than Isabella.

And I think the plight of these two characters sheds some light on another question you raise, though in a complicating rather than simplifying way: When you learn that the choices you make for the sake of your own soul have profound consequences for other people, does that place you in a position of power? Or rather of a particularly miserable sort of powerlessness?

the limits of pluralism

Much of the history of religion in America has been written to emphasize the triumph of pluralism. Perhaps rightly so. That has meant, however, that those who have never conceded the premise that all or most religions, or even most Christian denominations, are more or less equal, have not been taken as seriously in our histories as they might. Even today there are vast numbers of Americans who, although committed to live at peace with other religious groups, believe it is a matter of eternal life or death to convert members of those groups to their own faith. Like it or not, such evangelistic religion has been and continues to be a major part of the experiences of many ordinary Americans. The dynamics of such religious experience need to be understood if one is to understand large tracts of American culture. Indeed, the tensions between religious exclusivism and pluralism are among the leading unresolved issues shaping the 21st century world.

– George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life

monastic warfare

Satan, issuing orders at nightfall to his foul precurrers, was rumoured to dispatch to capital cities only one junior fiend. This solitary demon, the legend continues, sleeps at his post. There is no work for him; the battle was long ago won. But monasteries, those scattered danger points, become the chief objectives of nocturnal flight; the sky fills with the beat of sable wings as phalanx after phalanx streams to the attack, and the darkness crepitates with the splintering of a myriad lances against the masonry of asceticism. Piety has always been singled out for the hardest onslaught of hellish aggression. The empty slopes of the wilderness became the lists for an unprecedented single combat, lasting forty days and nights, between the leaders of either faction; when the Thebaid filled up with hermits, their presence at once attracted a detachment of demons, and round the solitary pillar of St. Symeon the Stylite, the Powers of Darkness assembled and spun like swarming wasps.

— Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time to Keep Silence

a theology of culture

Another photo from that NYT story on the restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece. I have long dreamed of writing a comprehensive theology of culture — one to replace Richard Niebuhr’s overrated and conceptually rigid Christ and Culture, one founded in a truly thick theological anthropology, one that reckons with the full inheritance of modernity. So, so much of what I would want to say in such a book is already said by this image.

re-litigating the Reformation

With the 500th anniversary of the Reformation coming on, I’m already seeing pieces — they annoy me too much for me to link to them — that see the anniversary as an opportunity to take sides, to say The Reformation is good because it supports this thing I approve of or The Reformation is bad because it supports this thing I disapprove of or This good thing just happened and thanks be to the Reformation which after all caused it or This bad thing just happened so curses upon the Reformation which after all caused it. It’s going to be bad enough when serious Catholics and Protestants use the anniversary to cudgel one another — that’s already started — but everyone else is going to want a piece of the action as well.

We could strive to understand the Reformation, to open up a very complex and multilayered phenomenon for reflection, to break down simplistic caricatures, to discover unexplored (or underexplored) possibilities. But taking sides is what our cultures seems to do with everything now. Everyone seems to be asking of every phenomenon, though with their own tribal affiliation substituted, “Yes, but is it good for the Jews?” So what does the Reformation mean for feminism, LGBTQ rights, transgender rights, race, Republicans and Democrats, Muslims in Europe? That’s what we’re going to be hearing for the next year: a few words on Martin Luther and then that’s enough about him, let’s talk about us and figure out whether Luther is for us or against us. Whatever is happening in this very moment will be the interpretative key people will use to (they think) unlock the meaning of the Reformation. For those of us who are more seriously interested in history and the complicated ways it does and does not shape the present, this is not going to be fun.

against consequentialism

an unspoken Advent sermon, of sorts

In my recent involvement in the ongoing debate about sexuality and the church, I’ve heard a number of people argue that if conservatives were to treat affirmers of same-sex unions as brothers and sisters in Christ, that would serve to “normalize” or “legitimate” the affirmers. The consequences of such normalization, they say, would be to weaken the witness and testimony of Christ’s church.

It’s natural and in most cases appropriate to think about the likely consequences, outcomes, of actions. But … When people ask Jesus whether many will be saved or only a few — which is basically a question about the general or universal consequences of sin — he begins his answer by telling them to focus their attention on their own spiritual condition: “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” (And he adds that some of those most confident of their admission will be turned away.) When people ask whether the eighteen people who died when the Tower of Siloam collapsed suffered death as punishment for being more wicked than other people, Jesus says: Nope, they weren’t more wicked than you, so repent now while you still can. When Jesus prophesies the death of Peter, and Peter replies by asking what will become of John, Jesus replies: “What is that to you? Follow me.”

I think if you put these passages together they have a common theme: Jesus asks people to obey rather than calculate consequences — and if you are going to think about consequences, focus on the consequences for yourselves of disobedience. If, as I have suggested, we are commanded to treat those who disagree with us on matters of sexuality but “confess the faith of Christ crucified” as brothers and sisters, then that’s what we have to do, regardless of what consequences we anticipate or fear. I say If because my interpretation may be wrong, but the question that I’ve raised is the one question that must be answered before we go any further. Because once we acknowledge people as brothers and sisters then a whole bunch of other commandments kick in. At every stage our only concern, it seems to me, is our own obedience to the Lord’s teaching. To say “But if I do that, then X will happen” is to invite the reply: What is X to you? Follow me.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this specific case might be, I have to say that thinking about these matters has been an enlightening experience for me personally. For many years I have understood my own Christian calling as one that encourages reconciliation and mutual understanding. (Let it be acknowledged that I have often failed to manifest the generosity of spirit required to do such work well.) I have tried to do this in a small way politically — hoping to get liberals and conservatives to have more charitable and mutually forbearing interactions, something that I do from my position as a conservative-liberal-socialist — but mainly within the church. I have hoped for many years to get rival Anglican bodies likewise to be forbearing towards one another and to seek common cause. I have tried to encourage cooperation between Catholics and Protestants, in the belief that, given the strong currents of our culture, if we do not hang together we shall most assuredly hang separately. But recently I have found myself grown very weary in well doing, despite the biblical admonition. I have said to myself, You gave it your best shot, it’s time to pack up, go home, and do something else for a change. I told a friend recently that the chief thing I have learned in my years of seeking reconciliation is that people’s enmities are their treasures, and trying to deprive them of those enmities is like trying to take gemstones from the lair of Smaug.

But just in the past few days I’ve come to realize how much my discouragement arises from consequentialism rather than obedience. I have wanted to make a difference. I have wanted to be successful. Even when I have thought of people whose efforts were belatedly rewarded — like Gerard Manley Hopkins, who went to his death thinking that his enormous gifts as a poet had been wasted, had gone for nothing — my real focus has been on that eventual recognition, which Hopkins has surely received in spades. But it’s not possible to reflect on the example of those who did not grow weary in well doing but whose efforts brought forth no obvious fruit — those who, as George Eliot says in the magnificent closing words of Middlemarch, “rest in unvisited tombs “— because nobody knows who they are. If we have a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, should we not also have memorials to the unrecognized and unthanked workers of charity and kindness?

In any case, all my mental fluttering about consequentialism has come home to roost. It was a moment of powerful illumination for me when I realized that if I were to say to the Lord that I could see no point in continuing to seek reconciliation among people who did not want to be reconciled to one another, the only answer I would be likely to receive is this: What is that to you? Follow me.

 

a response to replies to responses to …

Thanks to an email from a friend, I just discovered that I am part of an ongoing controversy in ways that I knew nothing about. I’m tempted just to say “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative, one that I have never asked to be part of” — except I kind of asked for it, so I guess I can’t complain. Anyway:

First of all, as I say in my Twitter bio and on my home page and in a blog post I link to from that home page, I don’t read Twitter any more. I use it just for linking to things I’ve posted or read. So if you write something in response to me and post that on Twitter, or reply to me on Twitter, I will not see it. I just now read a bunch of replies because of the tweet by Andrew Wilson my friend pointed me to, but otherwise I would never have been aware of responses. And I’m not changing my practice in this matter. Twitter is the worst possible platform for having discussions about anything of substance, and I am trying to emancipate myself from it altogether, though my publishers don’t like the idea of my deleting my account. (Of course, I don’t expect everyone to read my Twitter bio etc. before replying to me, but it’s a good general rule not to assume that other people use Twitter the same way you do.)

Anyway, my post was not written in reaction to anything other than the things I had read when I first responded to Andrew Wilson last week. I’ve just continued to mull over the same questions.

Now: it appears that Andrew and several others believe that I am — or Helmut Thielicke is, or both of us are — denying the possibility of church discipline. I cannot even imagine what tortured chain of illogic might lead people to think that You shouldn’t say that other people who claim to be Christians aren’t Christians at all is equivalent to You may not practice church discipline. There is simply no line that leads from the one to the other. In Catholic practice, for instance, even the most severe form of discipline, excommunication, does not in itself lead to damnation: In the Purgatorio Dante dramatizes the extended period of waiting that those who have been excommunicated must undergo before beginning their purgation, but they will eventually begin it because they are saved. Of course, excommunicated people can indeed be damned, but that’s neither the result nor the intention of excommunication in any church that I know of. To think that you can determine someone’s salvation or damnation by their inclusion in or exclusion from a given church community would be the very highest level of hubris. But surely — surely — it goes without saying that churches must have order, conditions for membership, discipline for wrongdoing, etc.

So anyone who thinks that I have denied the validity of church discipline is simply not reading what I wrote. And even in the brief excerpts from Thielicke that I quote he says, “Of course we should ‘distinguish between spirits.’ Of course we must call what is godly godly and what is satanic satanic. The Lord Christ himself did this.” This is I suppose an inevitable consequence of living in interesting times: people react rather than read; they get spooked by potential implications rather than taking the time to attend to what is actually said. I would just, as politely as possible, ask everyone to read the lines that I’ve actually written rather than try to read between them.

Three more brief comments and then I have to get back to my day job.

  1. If you want me to read something you’ve written, you’re gonna have to send me an email, because otherwise I’m not going to see it (unless your site happens to be in my RSS feed, as Andrew Wilson’s is).
  2. I think it’s vital to look at the profound and necessary instruction in church discipline given throughout the NT epistles within the context of the straightforward teaching of the Lord Jesus. It would be unfortunate indeed if the two bodies of teaching were seen to be in conflict with each other, or if one were designated as ruling the other.
  3. Several people responding to me talk about what “we” do to discipline those who go astray or teach wrongly. What do you mean “we,” kemosabe? It’s worth noting that most of the people responding to me are pastors or teachers of the church, whereas I am neither: I am a person in the pew and no more (and within the Anglican tradition of church polity, which means that my role is confined to safeguarding the material, as opposed to the spiritual, health of the parish). Which is perhaps why they tend to speak from the position of power and want to justify the legitimate exercise of that power, while I tend instinctively to sympathize with those against whom the power is wielded. That doesn’t in any way mean that they’re wrong and I’m right; I note it only to suggest that that difference may help to explain and situate some of the disagreement.

on wheat and weeds

In the early 1950s Helmut Thielicke preached a series of sermons at St. Michael’s Church in Hamburg on the parables of Jesus. They have been collected in this book and I recommend them to you in the strongest possible terms.

One of the most powerful of the sermons is on the parable of the wheat and the tares — and before I go any further I want to note that the great unspoken context of this sermon (and indeed the whole series) is the de-Nazification of Germany in the postwar years and the desire to start over from scratch, at Stunde Null. I should add also that the whole sermon is far more powerful than the summary account I will give here.

Thielicke begins by admitting that the parable poses a great and puzzling question:

We understand the angry reaction of the servants, who want to go out immediately and rip out the weeds, even though, from a farmer’s point of view, this is almost impossible. Nor does the Lord permit this. Rather, he says, “Let both grow together until the harvest. You can’t change things. Leave the decision, leave the separation of the weeds from the wheat to the judgment day of God. This is not your affair. God will take this thing in hand in his good time.” What is it that causes our Lord, so strangely, it seems, to stifle the holy zeal of his people and to say to them, “Hands off! You cannot change the field of the world as it is anyhow”?

He suggests that there are three reasons why Jesus dissuades his disciples from separating the wheat (the real disciples, those who will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven) from the tares, the weeds (those who are not truly Christians and will ultimately be cast out).

“First, he is saying: Please do not think that you can exterminate the evil in the world by your activity and your own personal exertions. After all, that evil is within you yourselves.” Even those who are true believers are not free from the sins that they denounce in others, which is why, Thielicke believes, we tend to distrust those who become obsessive about social reform. “The fanatical reformers do precisely what the servants in our parable wanted to do. They want to exterminate the tares with force and will power, failing to remember that their own wills are filled with weeds. Not to see this is their Pharisaical error; and to see this is the royal realism of Jesus Christ.”

The second reason Jesus forbids the uprooting of the weeds is

the same reason that Jesus forbade his disciples to call down fire from heaven to consume the hostile Samaritans (Luke 9: 52 ff.). On that occasion he cried out in anger to his people, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of: for the Son of man came not to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” We would therefore be spoiling God’s plan of salvation if we were to organize a great “Operation Throw-them-out,” if we were to cast out of the temple the hangers-on, the hypocrites, the “borderliners,” and all the other wobblers in Christendom, in order to keep a small elite of saints. For this would mean that we would rob these people of the chance at least to hear the Word and take it to heart…. But the very reason why Jesus died was to open the Father’s house to everybody, including the superficial, the indifferent, the mockers and revilers. The bells of invitation which sound over market place, fields, and alleys would be silenced, and the comforting promise, “Everybody can come, just as you are,” would be turned into a questionnaire in which everybody would have to list his accomplishments and merits. And finally somebody else would add them up and evaluate them and give the verdict: “You passed” or “You failed.”

This, I think, requires no commentary; just reflection.

And now the third reason: “the householder in the parable explicitly points out that the servants are completely incapable of carrying out any proper separation of grain and weeds because they look so much alike and therefore in their zeal for weeding out the tares they would also root out the wheat.” Here Thielicke is quick to insist that he is not counseling either indifference or a reluctance to make moral judgments: “Of course we should ‘distinguish between spirits.’ Of course we must call what is godly godly and what is satanic satanic. The Lord Christ himself did this.” But the casting out of people is a different thing, a different order of action.

When we examine the weed patch more closely and try, on the basis of what we know about sin, blasphemy, and nihilism, to determine clearly just who is a sinner, a blasphemer, a nihilist, we encounter a strange difficulty. We find that nobody is merely a blasphemer or merely a nihilist, but always at the same time an unhappy, misguided child of God. The soldiers who drove the nails into Jesus’ hands and then mocked him were not only blasphemers and functionaries of Satan. On the contrary, the Father in heaven grieved over them, because they really belonged to him and, tragically, they seemed to be completely unaware of this and went on heeding the prompting of another, dark, power. I venture to ask this question: Have we ever in our life met a person, no matter how depraved, unbelieving, or vicious he may have been, even some malicious, quarreling, clacking neighbor or a slippery, scheming fellow worker— I ask you, have we ever met a person of whom we dared to say, “This person is really a weed and nothing but a weed”?

Or were we not at the same time brought up short and challenged to see that Jesus died for him too, and that none of us can know whether God may not still have something in mind for him, whether some altogether different seed may yet spring up in him? Would not our hand wither if we were to root him out as a weed? Must not this hand draw back and perhaps open in a gesture of blessing and prayer that God may yet bestow his mercy upon this seemingly lost and condemned failure?

Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

“such an obvious thought”

All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question “If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?” You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is! Handle him properly and it simply won’t come into his head. He has not been anything like long enough with the Enemy to have any real humility yet. What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favourable credit-balance in the Enemy’s ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with these “smug”, commonplace neighbours at all. Keep him in that state of mind as long as you can.

— C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

the church and the present moment

What is the ‘present moment’ of the Church’s life like? Well, it is all too like the response of the disciples in Jesus’ lifetime. How very tempting, then, to turn our emotional energy and imagination towards a ‘better’ Church, away from the embarrassing present moment. Nonetheless, it is here, in Jesus crucified and in the struggling and failing community, that the coming of the Human One in glory is made visible to the world.

It is a vision that the contemporary Church might well ponder. Paraphrasing St Paul, we might say that ‘liberal’ Christians look for a clear and purified future and ‘traditionalists’ look towards a more faithful and less compromised past. Yet the gospel remains the gospel of the crucified, asking of us an attention to the reality that is before us and within us here and now, a reality that will be scandalous and painful. Pascal’s stark assertion that ‘Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world’ is much in the spirit of Mark; and it is not an observation about the deplorable state of unbelievers, but an exhortation to believers to keep awake — awake to their own inability to stay in the almost unbearable present moment where Jesus is — rather than look for an unreal future or past to run to.

— Rowan Williams, Christ on Trial

who I am

Matthew’s narrative does not allow the believer — in particular the articulate and educated believer, the teacher, the expert — any fixed answer to the question of how I might know that I am still with Jesus rather than with Caiaphas. As soon as there seems to be an answer to such a question, it becomes part of just that system of religious words and religious fluency that helps to make possible the exclusion of Jesus. In the presence of Jesus at his trial, faith unavoidably takes on something of a catch-22 dimension. What matters is to hold still before the question.

Yes, of course we may discover specific acts, specific patterns of behaviour and speech that put us on the side of Caiaphas, and there are things we can do to change those and to make reparation. There is no escape, however, from the summons to be in the presence of Christ on trial. It is as if he said to each believer, ‘Stand where I can see you,’ and my faithfulness to him is going to be bound up with the whole diverse process of keeping myself ‘in question’. This is not a matter of obsessional self-scrutiny, the search for an impossible transparency to my ‘real’ motives or desires. It is only a sober and consistent recognition that I have no final and satisfying account to give of myself, and must wait in Christ’s presence to learn who I am.

— Rowan Williams, Christ on Trial

a brief response to Andrew Wilson

I’m not altogether sure why Andrew Wilson includes me in this post — he says, “I’ve deliberately avoided talking about … the question of whether those who affirm such relationships should be called false teachers,” but that was the only question I addressed in my earlier post. Andrew’s post denounces antinomianism, but I’m not an antinomian and I doubt that Steve Holmes is either. (I mean, didn’t the Apostle Paul settle that?) But I’ll let Steve respond to that if he’s so inclined.

Andrew’s post avoids the vexed question I raised, which concerns how to deal with serious disagreement within Christ’s church about sexual ethics. He therefore leaves all the really tough questions not only unresolved but unaddressed. Here are some of them:

  • How do we distinguish between error in interpreting Scripture, which we are all guilty of, and “false teaching”?
  • How do we distinguish between error in interpreting Scripture and sin? (Presumably not all errors are the product of sin, though some are.)
  • How do we distinguish between the accountability of those who promote erroneous interpretations and the accountability of those who believe those interpretations? (The argument that those who affirm same-sex unions are “leading people onto the highway to hell” implies that God will damn people for being badly catechized. That’s an implication that requires some scrutiny.)
  • While, as Andrew points out, there are many passages in Scripture that emphasize the importance of correcting erroneous teaching and calling out sinful behavior, under what circumstances may we say that someone who teaches error, or who commits certain sins habitually, is not a Christian at all and that we must say so? If we do believe that we can and should make this judgment, how then do we interpret the parable of the wheat and the weeds?
  • Presumably those who denounce interpreters who affirm same-sex unions as false teachers who are leading people on the highway to hell would readily acknowledge that they themselves are sinners — but redeemed sinners; people not on the broad path that leads to destruction but on the narrow way that leads to salvation. How do they distinguish between their sins and those they are denouncing? Why does Jesus’s contrast between the speck in your brother’s eye and the long in your own not apply to them?

I don’t think we’ll make much progress in sorting out particular theological and moral questions unless we first decide how, practically, we are to deal with one another when we have significant disagreements. That’s something Christians have rarely been good at, and that’s why the questions above are, in my view, so important.

On False Teachers: Bleat the Third

Steve Holmes recently wrote of his experience defending the traditionalist view on homosexuality at the Society for Biblical Literature conference:

I was slow to understand what went on in our session at ETS; the Rottweilers were out in some force, and challenging Megan and Bill [who were arguing for affirming same-sex relationships] on their understanding… But there was repeatedly an extra step stated or implied in the questions, from ‘this is wrong’ to ‘you are not a Christian’. I admit I did not understand where this was coming from.

Then someone came up to me at the end, and asked why I had been defending my friends. I began to say some stuff about love and loyalty but he cut across me, ‘They are leading people onto the highway to hell!’

I’ll set aside my difficulties with serious use of the phrase “highway to hell” in our post-AC/DC era, and just note that I have heard this before from my fellow theological conservatives: that people who teach that same-sex unions can be affirmed are not just wrong but are “false teachers” — people teaching something clearly other than the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and therefore to be denounced and cast out rather than treated as brothers and sisters with whom we disagree.

I think this is the wrong way to look at the situation and want to explain why. (Let me also add that I affirm with my whole heart the rest of Holmes’s post, and his further reflections in the comments thereupon. The affirmations I share with him are useful context for my views on this particular matter.)

Let’s begin by positing a few assumptions, because the argument I want to explore only arises when the following assumptions are granted: (1) that the Church must, in order to carry out its mission, confront theological and moral error; (2) that Holy Scripture is our authoritative guide to theological and moral truth and falsehood; (3) that sexual behavior is taken very seriously throughout the NT and that erroneous teaching about it must therefore be seen as profoundly consequential; (4) that the traditionalist side is correct on the merits, and the affirming side incorrect; (5) that there really are “false teachers” whose message is something other than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And perhaps one other assumption should be noted as well: that it is our place to decide who the false teachers are and to denounce them, something I have raised questions about here.

Now: onward.

As far as I can tell the two passages that are foundational for the concept of the “false teacher” are 2 Peter 2 and 1 Timothy 4. I assume that Peter’s pseudodidaskaloi are pretty much the same as Paul’s didaskaliais daimoniōn, though perhaps the latter are even worse. That is, we could have three categories of error (teachers who are sometimes wrong, false teachers, demonic teachers) — but I suspect there are just two, and the latter two categories should be seen as one.

It is interesting, I note in passing, that 2 Peter coins pseudodidaskaloi by explicit analogy to pseudoprophētai, the latter being a far more common term in the NT. But clearly false teaching and false prophecy are distinct things, though if what I say in my previous paragraph is right they have a common origin: didaskaliais daimoniōn would also be anolagous to prophētai daimoniōn.

In any case, all this is foundational to a NT anatomy of error, it seems to me.

So — setting aside as irrelevant to this canonically-based inquiry the question of whether Peter wrote 2 Peter — let’s look at the famous dispute between Peter and Paul about the “circumcision party.” Paul says he told Peter to his face that he was wrong about this, and of course Paul’s view won out at the Council of Jerusalem (where, I have always thought comically, Peter presents it as his own view, with no reference to Paul having corrected him). Now, clearly, this is a foundational issue in relation to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and if the circumcision party had won out it would have been the death of the Church in its infancy. So it is scarcely possible for Peter, assuming that he did at one time hold this view, to have been more catastrophically wrong. Does this then mean that for a time Peter was one of the pseudodidaskaloi?

That’s not quite what Paul says when describing the disagreement in Galatians 2. Instead, he says that in the circumcision party there was a failure to “walk correctly” (orthopodousin) in relation to “the truth of the Gospel.” A fascinating turn of phrase. Here interpreters will surely differ, but it seems to me that Paul is not treating Peter as a false teacher, but rather a brother, even though a brother who has made a terrible error — for if Peter is right, the conclusion of Paul’s argument says in verse 21, then “Christ died for nothing.” Paul does not anathematize Peter, but strives to correct him as one apostle to another, not questioning his place as one of the “acknowledged pillars” (v. 9) of the Church.

So perhaps the pseudodidaskaloi and didaskaliais daimoniōn are going further and questioning or denying the most elementary and foundational teaching of all: that Jesus is Lord, according to the Christology of John 1 and Colossians 1:15-20. This would be supported, I think, by the description of the false teachers in 2 Peter: they have “licentious ways,” “destructive opinions,” and “deceptive words,” none of which are spelled out except to say that “they will even deny the Master who bought them” — which may give us some hint about how deep the errors are here and therefore what qualifies as pseudodidaskaloi. Peter, by contrast, was not — not any longer, after his shameful behavior on the night Jesus was taken away! — denying the Master who bought him, but was mistaken about what the saving power of that Master meant for the Mosaic law.

So if you can be as wrong as Peter was about something foundational for the Gospel and still not be denounced as a false teacher, then I think it follows that if people do not “walk correctly” in relation to biblical teaching about sexuality, they likewise need not be treated as pseudodidaskaloi but can be seen as brothers and sisters whom those who hold the traditional view patiently strive to correct, without coming out from among them, speaking with the patience and gentleness commended in 2 Timothy 3:24-25.

The Sacraments and the Honey of Love: A Second Bleat

In one of his posts on the possibility of a Benedict Option for Christians, Rod Dreher made a really, really important point:

This is not the fault of mainstream culture. This is the fault of the church. We have done a dismal job preparing our kids, and preparing ourselves, for the postmodern, post-Christian world in which we live. We have to do better — a lot better. These are not normal times. Once the faith departs, it’s very hard to recover it.

I have two points to make about these sentences, one brief and one long and complicated.

The brief one: in response to Rod’s statement that “these are not normal times,” a number of people have said that these are too normal times, or that these are pretty good times for Christians, or that the times are never normal for Christians. Any or all of these may be true, and there could still be the need for a Benedict Option — because whatever it is we’re doing clearly isn’t working very well. Even the Christians who do the best job of making their communities attractive for both longtimers and newcomers aren’t succeeding by any reasonable standard of communal health. So “normal times” or not, it’s time to rethink our standard practices in the hope of genuinely thriving.

And now to the long one. I want to describe a case study in pastoral care, in the Episcopal Church. It involves a gay married couple in Orlando who want to have their child baptized but have met resistance from those who believe that the couple is disobedient to classic Christian teaching about sexuality and therefore cannot really affirm the whole Baptismal Covenant. For instance — so the argument goes, as I have heard from people closer to the situation than I am — those who are openly living in sexual sin cannot honestly answer “Yes” to the question, “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”

I think that child in Orlando should have be baptized (and indeed, eventually he was). I’d like now to spell out my reasons, in a way that would also suggest a Eucharistic theology.

My understanding of the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, which I take to be a standard (if not the only standard) Anglican understanding, is that they are not just signs but means of grace: “spiritual food and drink,” as is said in the prayer book. It is by and through the sacraments that we are enlightened and empowered to be the body of Christ in and for the world. And of course it is only through the sacrament of Baptism, in which we die along with Christ, paying the due penalty for our sin, and are then raised to new life in Him, that we are so reconciled with Him that we may participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion. And as John Wesley wrote, “The chief of these means [of God’s grace to us] are prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation; searching the Scriptures; (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon;) and receiving the Lord’s Supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of Him: And these we believe to be ordained of God, as the ordinary channels of conveying his grace to the souls of men.”

Therefore to deny people the sacraments is to deny them one of the primary means by which they can receive the enlightening and empowering grace by which they can come to know God and follow Him. For the Anglican with a high sacramental theology, it is to deprive them of the “spiritual food and drink” that should be our regular diet. This strikes me as a massively dangerous thing to do. How can we expect people to think as they should and act as they should if we are denying them access to this empowering grace? If we could think and act as mature Christians without regular access to the sacraments, then what need do we have for those sacraments?

So on what grounds might one deny Holy Baptism to that child in Orlando?

I presume the argument is a prudential one based on church discipline: People who openly disobey the Church’s moral teachings cannot be given the sacraments until they repent and promise to alter their ways. To do otherwise is to empty out the authority of those teachings. I don’t think that’s a strong argument for several reasons:

  • It is extremely unlikely that any of the people involved have been well-catechized in the Faith. We all need to face up to the fact that almost no churches in the Anglican tradition, conservative as well as liberal, have taken catechesis seriously for a long time. To deny the sacraments to people the Church has failed to catechize is to make others suffer for the failings of the Church’s leadership.
  • Almost everyone in our society — with the exception of monastics, the Amish, and a few fundamentalist Protestants — has been deeply and persistently catechized by the mass media into a very different model of sexuality than the Christian and biblical one. We should have the same compassion for them as we would for people who have been raised in a brainwashing cult.
  • I cannot see the justice or lovingness of denying a child the sacrament of initiation into Christ’s body because of any shortcomings of his or her parents, especially if those parents have not themselves been well-catechized. Not only is the child being denied initiation, but the congregation is being denied the sacramental task of praying that child into full Christian faith. (Some may say, “Well, they can pray anyway” — which they can: but if that’s the whole response, then what good is Baptism? In my understanding, it is the wedding garment that allows entry to the Great Feast; the person who lacks it is in a dangerous place, and even the prayers of the faithful cannot wholly compensate for that lack.)
  • Moreover, even in cases where church discipline is called for, the denial of the sacraments is the “nuclear option” of discipline — the most severe penalty a church can administer. This seems to be wholly out of proportion to the sins involved.
  • The model of Jesus is here, as everywhere, vital: the man who scandalized the Pharisees because of his willingness to have fellowship, indeed table fellowship, with sinners. We should remember that Jesus did not say to Zaccheus, “Repent and I will come to your house tonight.” Rather, his determination to sit at table with Zaccheus was what prompted Zaccheus’s repentance.

My concern here is that Anglican leaders whose theological instincts are sound and good, who feel the enormous pressure by our society (including many in the Church) to alter ancient Christian teaching to suit contemporary preferences, are allowing their pastoral theology and pastoral practice to be warped by these controversies. We are surrounded by sexual revolutionaries who insist that sexuality is fundamental to identity, is the most important thing imaginable — and in order to resist them we end up agreeing with them, and elevating disputes on sexuality to a level of importance which properly speaking only should belong to credal questions.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that sexuality is something that Christians can “agree to disagree” about — it is too important for that, affects too many lives too profoundly — but rather that our disagreements on these issues should not lead to the “nuclear option” of denying people the sacraments. (I would note that questions surrounding what Christians do with their money are just as important, and in historical terms even more contested, and yet never lead to the denial of sacramental participation.)

To put the matter briefly and bluntly: I fear that in rightly attempting to “hold the line” on sexuality we are in serious danger of allowing something very close to a Donatist spirit to creep into our pastoral theology and practice. And I think this is very dangerous indeed — dangerous to us and to the people whom we would deny sacramental participation. We cannot stress too strongly, it seems to me, that none of us is worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under the Lord’s Table. And we should remember that the task of re-catechizing the Church is going to take a very long time — decades, perhaps centuries — and in the meantime we must be generous and loving to those who have been brainwashed by the world, and not prevent those who desire it from taking the true spiritual food and drink on which we were meant to live. As Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, “Honor and glory belong to God alone, but God will receive neither if they are not sweetened with the honey of love.”

Anglicanism and Eucharistic Discipline: A Bleat

For some time now I’ve had reflections on theological and pastoral controversies — some in the Anglican world, some the evangelical, some in both — sitting on my hard drive. I’ve decided to post three of them, not so much because I’m sure they’re all right, but rather in the hope that I can cease to chew these issues over and move on to other things. This is the first of my three bleats.


Anglican practices of Communion have historically been quite variable, with different parishes in different regions at different times choosing to make Holy Communion or Morning Prayer the usual Sunday morning service. But the conditions for admission to Communion have not varied so much. Typically, people baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity who are not “notorious evil livers” and who are at peace with their neighbors are eligible. When there has been a practice of Confirmation — not universal among Anglicans — then that may also have been a condition, though more recently it has been left to the discretion of parents to decide whether to have their children come to the Communion rail.

I might add that when Confirmation has been a prerequisite for Communion, that Confirmation has often been connected to the brief and beautiful catechism of the 1662 BCP, with its elegant invocation of three central texts of Eucharistic and daily worship: the Creed, the Decalogue, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Communion practices are a useful point of focus to explore a development that concerns me greatly: what looks to me like the abandonment, among all varieties of North American Anglicans, of certain longstanding Anglican practices.

Before I go any further, let me pause to note that I have no stature to debate these matters. I am neither a bishop nor a priest not a biblical scholar nor a liturgist nor a theologian. I am just a layman of some years’ standing — one of the sheep. But, as C.S. Lewis said in his great essay on “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,” a sheep at least can bleat. Consider what follows as my bleat.

When an Anglican complains about the abandonment of longstanding practices, he or she usually has the Episcopal Church (TEC) in mind. And indeed many TEC parishes and dioceses have been jettisoning their Anglican, and more generally Christian, inheritance as fast they can manage. One of the key abandonments here has been ceasing to make Trinitarian Baptism a prerequisite for admission to the Lord’s table, and I can’t imagine a more thoroughgoing practical rejection of the Christian message than open Communion. For, if the traditional view is that Baptism is the sacrament of reconciliation and Communion the sacrament of the reconciled, open Communion effectively denies that we need to be reconciled to God: God is perfectly happy with all of already, so — in defiance of the parable of the Wedding Feast — we’re all automatically welcome at His table, wedding garment be damned.

But I fear that ACNA, or at least some of the parishes and dioceses of ACNA, in their eagerness to differentiate themselves from TEC, have also set aside Anglican tradition, just in an opposite way. I live in Waco, Texas, which places me in ACNA’s Diocese of Forth Worth, and this diocese will admit to Holy Communion only those baptized Christians who affirm the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Now, the teaching of the Real Presence is a strong element in Anglican theology since Hooker, and something that I affirm with all my heart and soul and mind; but to make it a requirement for admission to the Eucharistic feast strikes me as just as un-Anglican as open Communion. Affirmation of the Real Presence is not even in the Articles of Religion, and those were meant to be binding only on ordained clergy. To ask ordinary laypeople to make affirmation that priests were historically never required to make, or else bar them from the great meal of the Church, seems to me indefensible from any historically Anglican point of view. (And I am setting aside the question of whether apprehension of the Real Presence is actually possible outside the experience of its benefits. That Christ is truly present in the sacrament is indeed a truth-claim, but not one that we apprehend in the same way that we apprehend that 2+2=4. But again, we can set that aside for now.) And, equally, to deny that meal to faithful and validly-baptized Christians from traditions that do not acknowledge the Real Presence strikes me as a massive failure of hospitality in one of its most important senses. St. Paul’s notion of the “household of faith” (Gal. 6:10) seems immensely relevant here.

Presumably the exegetical defense here would be that those faithful Baptists and other are “those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:29). But to make access to Communion contingent on holding a particular interpretation of a single extremely obscure verse is surely un-Anglican at best — especially since so many not qualify under this particular interpretation. Could Richard Hooker — who wrote “The real presence of Christ’s most blessed body and blood is not to be sought for in the sacrament, but in the worthy receiver of the sacrament” — receive Communion in the diocese of Fort Worth? Could Jeremy Taylor? (“CHRIST is present in the Sacrament to our spirits only, i.e. not present to any other sense but that of faith.”) Could John Stott?

It might be objected that this is a diocesan mandate, not a more broadly denominational one. But that is a very large part of the problem. On an essential matter of the basic practice of the church — essential especially in our age, in which Communion is offered at least weekly and perhaps more frequently than that — a bishop can be dictatorial while the denomination as a whole remains agnostic. (By a similar logic though in a different venue, ACNA priests have the option in their parishes to remove the filioque from the creed. The filioque, about which there have been such bitter and tragic disputes over the centuries, reduced to a parish-level decision — as though it is pure adiaphora!)

I have noted that there are historic relations that link admission to Communion with Confirmation and Confirmation with a Catechism. ACNA is equally Janus-faced about this matter as well. In what the chair of the Catechism Committee, J.I. Packer, admits is a deviation from Anglican tradition, To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism is longer, more detailed, and more complex than its predecessors. This, Packer says, is because the new document “is intended as a more comprehensive catechetical tool” to be used in a variety of instructional contexts. In general, the new catechism is well-made, though sometimes it inadvertently gets into disputed or ambiguous territory. For instance, when it says that “when the Lord Jesus Christ returns, the world as we know it will come to an end,” that is only accurate under certain meanings of “as we know it” and “come to an end.” Which makes me wonder whether this is a matter that belongs in a Catechism.

That, however, is not a question I can answer without having a better understanding of how the Catechism is to be used, and that’s hard to tell from the document itself. In his prefatory letter, Archbishop Bob Duncan says that “the degree to which it is used directly for instruction, and the amount of memorization asked of individual catechumens, is left up to the catechist to determine by context and circumstance.” It seems, then, that Archbishop Duncan does see this catechism as an element of preparation for Confirmation — but perhaps only if individual priests choose to use it? It’s hard to tell. And of course nothing is here said about the link between Confirmation and admission to Communion.

So on the one hand ACNA clearly wants to be more rigorous than TEC, not to make the parent denomination’s mistakes again; but, like so many children who rebel, it ends up replicating some of the problematic tendencies of the previous generation. Here’s a detailed and specific Catechism — but only use it when you want to, and in the way you want. Being a faithful baptized believer in the Gospel of Jesus Christ is enough to get you welcomed to the Eucharistic feast — well, in many dioceses, anyway. Parish priests may add or subtract the filioque at will. There is the appearance of rigor but, on the diocesan and sometimes the parish level, about as much of a choose-your-own-adventure model as there is in TEC.

In the Anglican way at its best, affirmations, expectations, and definitions are kept clear, minimal, and firm. That’s why my favorite Anglican documents are the 1662 Catechism and the Lambeth Quadrilateral. When TEC showed itself unwilling or unable to enforce even the most minimal commitments for belief and practice, ACNA responded with a series of expanded rubrics and statements — most of which are made optional and therefore lack power to compel and unify. Given that ACNA is trying to hold together a diverse constituency, this may be understandable. But that is of little comfort to the poor confused sheep bleating from the pews.

It seems clear to me that the one thing the clergy of ACNA have been able to agree on is that they want to avoid the wishy-washiness that emptied out the doctrine (and the pews!) of TEC. They concluded that in order to avoid such a fate they needed to make their own affirmations more specific and more detailed. But they have not so far been able to agree on what those more detailed statements must be. So increased strictnesses are put on the table — but only as options, at either the diocesan or the parish level.

I am inclined to think that this approach was bound to fail and indeed was misbegotten. The problem with the TEC isn’t that there aren’t enough rules, or sufficiently specific ones, but that the existing rules are so often flouted. Parishes opened Communion and ceased to be bound in their public readings by the lectionaries, or even the Bible. Bishops openly defied the doctrine and discipline of the church they had pledged to defend.

Is it too late for ACNA to rethink all this? I fear it is. But still, I plead: be brief, be blunt, be straightforward. Tell us what the Nicene Creed is, without offering substitutions on the menu. Keep the requirements for admission to the Lord’s Table minimal but clear, and police them firmly. (Remember that this is the “spiritual food and drink” on which the followers of Jesus are meant to feed, and that we do not function as well when we lack access to it.) Beware of extraneous forms of strictness, especially if they’re only optional. Be willing to sacrifice some of your own preferences in order to bring peace and understanding to your sheep. Such rules and disciplines as are formulated, obey. In non-essentials let there be liberty, in essentials unity, in all things charity … and in a great many more things clarity.

Here endeth the bleat. Those of you who can instruct and correct me, please do so.

wisdom for Christians from Jacques Maritain

It is not enough for a population or a section of the population to have Christian faith and be docile to the ministers of religion in order to be in a position properly to judge political matters. If this population has no political experience, no taste for seeing clearly for itself nor a tradition of initiative and critical judgment, its position with respect to politics grows more complicated, for nothing is easier for political counterfeiters than to exploit good principles for purposes of deception, and nothing is more disastrous than good principles badly applied. And moreover nothing is easier for human weakness than to merge religion with prejudices of race, family or class, collective hatreds, passions of a clan and political phantoms which compensate for the rigors of individual discipline in a pious but insufficiently purified soul. Politics deal with matters and interests of the world and they depend upon passions natural to man and upon reason. But the point I wish to make here is that without goodness, love and charity, all that is best in us—even divine faith, but passions and reason much more so—turns in our hands to an unhappy use. The point is that right political experience cannot develop in people unless passions and reason are oriented by a solid basis of collective virtues, by faith and honor and thirst for justice. The point is that, without the evangelical instinct and the spiritual potential of a living Christianity, political judgment and political experience are ill protected against the illusions of selfishness and fear; without courage, compassion for mankind and the spirit of sacrifice, the ever-thwarted advance toward an historical ideal of generosity and fraternity is not conceivable.

— Jacques Maritain, Christianity and Democracy, 1944 (emphasis added)

True Confessions (Wheaton College edition)

This long article/essay/meditation by Ruth Graham on the disturbing events at Wheaton College last year — click on the “wheaton” tag at the bottom of this post for some of my thoughts about that situation, and other issues related to Christian higher education — is by far the best thing that anyone has written on the subject: the most deeply researched, fair-minded, and thoughtful. I commend it to you whole-heartedly.

I’m going to take a personal turn now. Ruth was a student of mine, so I’m especially gratified by passages like this:

During my four years at Wheaton, I drifted away from evangelicalism. But I never contemplated transferring to another school. I was reading Foucault and Judith Butler (Shakespeare and Milton too); my professors were brilliant and kind and I found plenty of kindred spirits. When the religion scholar Alan Wolfe visited Wheaton for a cover article about evangelical intellectualism in The Atlantic in 2000, halfway through my time there, he found a campus whose earnestness was both endearing and impressive: “In its own way, campus life at Wheaton College resembles that of the 1960s, when students and a few professors, convinced that they had embarked on a mission of eternal importance, debated ideas as if life really depended on the answers they came up with.” At a suburban dive bar on the edge of a marsh, we drank illicit Pabst on Saturday night and talked about politics, music and philosophy like undergraduates anywhere. Then we got up on Sunday morning and went to church.

(By the way, Wen Stephenson, who became my friend during his work as an editor on that Atlantic story, interviewed me about its topic. I can’t bring myself to re-read that interview, but there it is.)

During my 29 years teaching at Wheaton, I saw many students “drift away from evangelicalism.” I didn’t always regret that — it depended on what they drifted to. Evangelical Protestantism is by no means the only way to be a faithful Christian, and for some people it proves impossible, or at least very difficult, to be a faithful Christian in that tradition. But sometimes I did regret the drifting, if it led away from Christian faith altogether.

Still, we all, among the faculty, accepted that risk — it was and is built into the DNA of Wheaton (as it is in my current academic location, the Honors College at Baylor). As I’ve commented elsewhere, “The likelihood of producing such graduates is a chance Wheaton is willing to take. Why? Because it believes in liberal education, as opposed to indoctrination.” So I understood and accepted that the exposure to new and powerful ideas, some of them quite alien or hostile to Christianity, has a tendency to change people, sometimes quite dramatically.

But here’s my True Confession: what I’ve always found hard to accept is how many of my students — how many of my best students, including the ones I’ve invested the most time and energy in — become so embarrassed about having attended Wheaton that they never, later in life, publicly acknowledge the quality of the education they received there. In their determination to separate themselves from the religious world they grew up in — and also, it must be said, in attempts not to have their careers or social lives torpedoed by anti-evangelical prejudice — they are just not willing to say what Ruth says here: that however frustrating they found the chapel services, and however stiff-necked they believed the college’s administration to be, at least they received a first-class liberal-arts education from smart and caring teachers, most of whom also understood and sympathized with and did not judge students for any drifting from evangelical orthodoxy.

Let me emphasize again that I very much understand the impulse: many of these students can pay a social or vocational price for acknowledging that they attended Wheaton. What a blessing it is that there’s another Wheaton College, in Massachusetts: Maybe people will think I went there. And if people do find out that you graduated from “that fundamentalist school,” then perhaps the best strategy for moving forward is to say that you hated every minute of it, and repudiate it with all your being.

So I get all that. But it makes me sad, you know? Because I devoted my best energies to teaching those students — it was always a heart-and-soul thing for me, it really was. And because, while some graduates of Wheaton hated everything about it and can’t stand anyone involved with the place, many of them place a great value on the education they received there. I know: they tell me. But they only do so in private. And for my part, I keep their shameful secret.

“the wisdom of repugnance”: a test case

In this post I want to connect my earlier post about what needs to be done to reclaim the term “evangelical” with my frequently-asserted hostility to the Presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.

In a well-known passage from The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis writes,

St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful. In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.’

If one side of this proper training is the delighted recognition of, and attraction to, the good, the other and equally necessary side is the instinctive recoiling from “the disgusting and hateful.” That second kind of response is what Leon Kass appealed to in his famous essay on “The Wisdom of Repugnance.”

I believe that the proper response of the well-former mind and heart to the very idea of Donald Trump as President of the United States is, to put it bluntly, revulsion.

It is possible, of course, to feel that revulsion and then decide that it needs to be mastered. That is what has happened to many Republican politicians who have supported Trump: they let their political ambitions (in the worst case) or political loyalties (in the best) overcome their revulsion. Consider the former governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, who as I write has just withdrawn his support for Trump, saying, “He is unsound, uninformed, unhinged and unfit to be President of the United States.” That formulation is so perfectly accurate that I can’t help thinking that Pawlenty has been saying it in his head for quite some time now but has only today been driven to say it out loud.

I have little respect for politicians who ever, at any point, endorsed Trump, and none whatsoever for those who have not denounced him by this stage of the game, but I understand why they might have careerist reasons for doing what they do. We will set them aside, reflecting that verily, they have their reward — or their punishment, as the case may be.

What concerns me far more deeply is the ordinary, everyday Christian — the person who claims to be an evangelical Christian — who is not revolted by Trump, who lacks the requisite “wisdom of repugnance.” I think, for instance, of the people who have compared Trump to King David, presumably because both are guilty of sexual sin. But those who make this comparison have failed to recognize the difference between one who says “For I know my transgressions, / And my sin is ever before me” and one who says that he doesn’t “bring God into that picture” when he does something wrong and follows up by saying “I am good. I don’t do a lot of things that are bad.” And if you don’t understand that distinction — and equally if you understand it but for political reasons pretend not to — there is very little about the Christian message that you truly grasp.

By the way, I’m not talking about Hillary Clinton here because there is so little evangelical support for Hillary Clinton. She also offers much for us to be appalled by.

And I’m not even making the argument that an evangelical Christian should never in any circumstances vote for Trump. (Not today, anyway.) I am simply saying this: the fact that so many American Christians feel no revulsion at the thought of electing Donald Trump — this man so palpably “unsound, uninformed, unhinged and unfit” — as the leader of this or for that matter any other nation, but rather express great enthusiasm at the prospect, indicates not just a lack of knowledge but also, and more important, a lack of moral training. The immediate responses are missing or wrong.

There are many criteria we might apply to judge whether a given congregation (or for that matter denomination) is genuinely evangelical, here’s one of them: Is it raising up its people in such a way that they feel repugnance when confronted by truly repugnant ideas — like the idea of Donald Trump as leader of a nation?

What does a healthy response to the current controversy look like? We might turn to the editorial page of the Deseret News for an example. After incisively quoting Proverbs 29 (“when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn”) they state quite straightforwardly their response to Trump’s sexual boasting: “What oozes from this audio is evil.”

My fellow evangelicals: listen and heed. Your very future depends on your ability to do so.

historical addendum to the previous post

The word ‘Protestant’ … originally related to a specific occasion, in 1529, when at the Holy Roman Empire’s Diet (imperial assembly) held in the city of Speyer, the group of princes and cities who supported the programmes of reformation promoted by Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli found themselves in a voting minority: to keep their solidarity, they issued a ‘Protestatio’, affirming the reforming beliefs that they shared. The label ‘Protestant’ thereafter was part of German or imperial politics for decades, and did not have a wider reference than that…. It is therefore problematic to use ‘Protestant’ as a simple description for sympathizers with reform in the first half of the sixteenth century, and the reader will find that often in this book I use a different word, ‘evangelical’. That word has the advantage that it was widely used and recognized at the time, and it also encapsulates what was most important to this collection of activists: the good news of the Gospel, in Latinized Greek, the evangelium.

— Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History

Steal It Back

The always-thoughtful Alastair Roberts asks:

In light of the ignominious behaviour of leading ‘evangelical’ voices in supporting and standing by Donald Trump, I have a question for my American friends who haven’t compromised on this point. At what point should the self-designation ‘evangelical’ be abandoned? At what point do the liabilities of the term outweigh its potential benefits? At what point does the meaning of a term need to be so hedged with qualifications and distinctions that it ceases to be fit for purpose?

Roberts concludes that the term should be retired: “We need to shift the weight of our identity and our labours away from the mass movement and back towards the church and the task of forming a healthy and well-defined public.” In one sense, he’s right: evangelicalism has traditionally been a renewal movement within existing denominations or traditions, not something that stands on its own outside those traditions, and I think it works best that way. Evangelicalism at its best sees how the Christian traditions tend to lose their focus and their fire; it strives to bring Christians within whatever tradition to a new intensity of focus, a new fire of faith.

But to say that is to say that the term “evangelical” needs to be re-situated, not that it needs to be abandoned. I find myself remembering that moment in Rattle and Hum when Bono introduces “Helter Skelter” by saying, “Charles Manson stole this song from the Beatles. We’re stealing it back.” It’s time to steal “evangelical” back.

Who should steal it?

  • Those who believe that renewal among Christians is necessary
  • Those who believe that such renewal is difficult
  • Those who believe that such renewal is costly
  • Those who believe that the power to be renewed comes only from the Trinitarian God
  • Those who believe that that power of renewal is primarily and always to be sought through what John Wesley called the “the ordinary channels of conveying God’s grace into the souls of men,” as identified in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” In Wesley’s formulation, “First, all who desire the grace of God are to wait for it in the way of prayer…. Secondly, all who desire the grace of God are to wait for it in searching the Scriptures…. Thirdly, all who desire an increase of the grace of God are to wait for it in partaking of the Lord’s Supper.”
  • Those who can discern the resources within their own denominational traditions to pursue these tasks

Whom should they steal it from?

  • Those who think God is happy with them just as they are
  • Those who turn to God for material prosperity in preference to intimacy with God and charity towards their neighbors
  • Those whose minds are formed not by “searching the Scriptures” but by television, talk radio, and Twitter

How should they steal it back?

  • Put “searching the Scriptures” at the heart of congregational preaching — and singing (which requires, among other things, immediately eliminating all praise songs that are not thoroughly scriptural and restoring the place of hymns that offer a sophisticated interweaving of biblical texts: nothing teaches Christians how the various parts of the Bible interrelate better than the great hymns)
  • Rigorously and patiently teach people the various disciplines of public and private prayer (Adoration, Petition, Intercession, Thanksgiving, Lamentation)
  • Regularly and reverently celebrate the Lord’s Supper

If even a handful of the churches that now call themselves “evangelical” were to take these steps — in full awareness of how radically countercultural such steps are, and in full willingness to pay the price in popularity for their dedication — then in a generation or two there could be enough people who are properly formed within the ancient practices of the Christian faith to provide the critical mass necessary to have a significant impact on society. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick, but it will be a great work of mercy and grace. And anyway, the churches that fail to do these things will fade away, because they have nothing to pass on to their (biological and spiritual) children.

Don’t abandon “evangelical.” Steal it back.

A Tradinista! Manifesto

A Tradinista! Manifesto

The Frozen Standard Version

Beginning in the summer of 2016, the text of the ESV Bible will remain unchanged in all future editions printed and published by Crossway—in much the same way that the King James Version (KJV) has remained unchanged ever since the final KJV text was established almost 250 years ago (in 1769). This decision was made unanimously by the Crossway Board of Directors and the ESV Translation Oversight Committee. All future Crossway editions of the ESV, therefore, will contain the Permanent Text of the ESV Bible—unchanged throughout the life of the copyright, in perpetuity.

— ESV BibleA good many people seem to be freaking out over this — here’s a hysterical and factually challenged example — but I am at loss to understand why. Contrary to what the just-linked screed claims, Crossway and the ESV committee haven’t said that their translation is perfect. They’ve hardly insisted that no further English translations of the Bible be made. The committee has merely said that they’re not going to revise their work in the future, and they hope people will continue to use what they’ve produced for a long time. Given that the founding leader of the committee, Jim Packer, is 90 years old, and some of the other committee members are also getting up in years, isn’t that decision understandable? Maybe they’re just tired.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t reasonable criticisms to be made of the ESV, and especially of some of the most recent changes to it. Scot McKnight makes some of those reasonable criticisms here, and comments: “It is profoundly unwise for a translation to alter this kind of text to this kind of reading without public discussion of it, and then to pronounce it Permanent.” Unwise seems a fair enough judgment (though only because of those as it were last-minute changes).

[UPDATE: Here’s a response to the McKnight post that I’ll want to reflect on.]

On almost all of the points at which serious scholars disagree with particular decisions made by the ESV committee, I side with the scholars. It really does seem to me that a particular theological agenda (sexual complementarianism) has guided the ESV’s translations of certain passages, and that’s very unfortunate; perhaps for many a flaw that renders the translation unusable. But to say that the ceasing of work on the project,  the committee’s choosing not to continue working on it until they drop dead at their desks, “smacks of incredible arrogance” — that’s just crazy talk.


P.S. I don’t use a single translation: depending on circumstances I might use the KJV, the RSV, the NRSV, or an interlinear New Testament (I don’t have enough Greek to move confidently through a standalone Greek text). Sometimes I’m moved by delight in books that I have owned for a long time: both my KJV and my RSV are more than thirty years old, and they keep me connected with a long personal history of encountering and meditating on Scripture.

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I don’t use the ESV as enthusiastically as I did when it first came out, largely because I have listened to the scholars who’ve been critical of some of its decisions, but it still has a place in my rotation. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that the ESV committee’s Prime Directive — defer to the RSV whenever possible — means that the translation retains much of the linguistic and poetic excellence that the RSV had inherited from the KJV. For someone who has devoted much of his life to teaching and writing about poetry, this can’t not be a consideration. By contrast, the utter stylistic incompetence manifest in all versions of the NIV makes it simply unreadable to me. Indeed, all translations not directly in the Tyndale line of succession suffer from one or another disease of the English language, and even the NRSV translators were often deaf to the music of what they had inherited. (N.B. People who say that translators of the Bible — which is comprised largely of poetry and narrative! — should focus only on accuracy and ignore aesthetic questions simply do not understand the concept of accuracy in translation. Beauty matters, and not in “merely” aesthetic ways.)

My second reason for keeping the ESV in my rotation is not unlike the first: Crossway has devoted far, far more time and energy and skill into quality book-making than any other Bible publisher. Look, for instance, at this gorgeous edition of the Psalms — and it is but one example among several. Crossway has lavished similar attention on their smartphone apps; in this area they have only one real competitor, Neubible, which is still very much a work in progress and in fact could take a few lessons from Crossway’s apps. Why doesn’t any other Bible publisher care about these matters as much as a little conservative evangelical press in Wheaton, Illinois does?

Sometimes I want to sit down to read the Bible in well-wrought English, within a book that is well-made, and on pages that are admirably formatted and presented. Those are all features that help me concentrate on what I believe to be the Word of God. And that’s why the ESV, for all its flaws, is still in my reading rotation.

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