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.
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
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.
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.
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”
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.
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 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?
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
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
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.
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.
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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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)
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 Bible. A 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.
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.
I only attended low-church evangelical congregations for a few years after I became a Christian, but those were tough times for me, and more than once along the way I wondered if I had made a big mistake by trying to follow Jesus — at least, through trying to follow him alongside other people, in church. It wasn’t that I thought I was better than them — in fact, I usually thought I was worse. I especially felt I was too emotionally incompetent to be an evangelical. I mean, the pastor would tell me how happy I ought to be that Jesus had saved me from my sins, so I tried to be super-happy, but I could never quite get where he thought I needed to be. And then five minutes later he’d tell me how grieved I should be when I realized how deeply sinful I am, and I’d try to make myself appropriately sad at what I, through my rebellion, had done to God — but if I couldn’t climb the mountain of happiness I also couldn’t make my way down into the depths of the pit of sadness. Again: emotionally incompetent.
It was only when I began to worship in the Anglican tradition that I felt the burden lift. Because that tradition gave me the right words to say — words that Christians had prayed (in one language or another) for two thousand years, words that had stood the test of time, that had been crafted by people whose walk with Jesus was longer and stronger than mine would ever be. Instead of trying to feel a certain way, I just needed to focus on saying the right words, and in that way training myself to live inside them.
Even more important, the tradition was so wonderfully patient with me! It didn’t ask me to comprehend the tragedy of my sinfulness immediately. Instead, it said “Here you go, we’re starting this season called Lent now. You’ll have forty days to meditate on these matters, and we the Church will help you at every step.” And then when Easter came the liturgy said to me, “You can’t celebrate this in an instant — in fact, we’re going to take fifty days to live into the miracle of the Resurrection and the new life we have in Christ.”
I cannot possibly overstate what a gift the ancient liturgies and the ancient calendar of the Church have been to me. They have quite literally made it possible for me to be a follower of Jesus. Now, I am sure that if I had never come across the ancient faith God would have found ways to nourish and bless me, but how much smoother my path has been thanks to these old and well-trodden ways. I cannot begin to express my gratitude for them.
My favorite moment in this column by David Gushee comes when he says, “I have been a participant in the effort to encourage Protestant religious conservatives, generally known as fundamentalists and evangelicals, to reconsider their position voluntarily.” Voluntarily, or …? He sounds like a sheriff in an old Western: Are you gonna come along nice and quiet, or am I gonna hafta rough ya up?
But let’s assume that, contrary to certain appearances, Gushee doesn’t think of himself as an enforcer dispatched by the Powers That Be to bring recalcitrant bigots into line. Let’s set aside his insistence that none of the people on the wrong side of history are honest when they say they genuinely hold theological positions he himself held just a few years ago. (“They are organizing legal defense efforts under the guise of religious liberty.”) Let’s assume that he’s just quite neutrally letting us know what’s coming.
It turns out that you are either for full and unequivocal social and legal equality for LGBT people, or you are against it, and your answer will at some point be revealed. This is true both for individuals and for institutions.
Neutrality is not an option. Neither is polite half-acceptance. Nor is avoiding the subject. Hide as you might, the issue will come and find you.
And, in case we didn’t get the point the first time around, he returns to it later:
Openly discriminatory religious schools and parachurch organizations will feel the pinch first. Any entity that requires government accreditation or touches government dollars will be in the immediate line of fire. Some organizations will face the choice either to abandon discriminatory policies or risk potential closure. Others will simply face increasing social marginalization.
A vast host of neutralist, avoidist or de facto discriminatory institutions and individuals will also find that they can no longer finesse the LGBT issue. Space for neutrality or “mild” discrimination will close up as well.
So in light of these warnings about what is to come, I have one question for David Gushee: So what?
That is: What, in his view, follows from this state of affairs — for Christians, that is? Odd that he doesn’t say. It has been my understanding that Christians consider it a virtue to hold to their convictions in the face of unpopularity and even persecution. (“Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another.… But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”)
Of course, you can also be persecuted for holding false views; being persecuted doesn’t confer legitimacy. But it certainly isn’t a sign of error, or those who have “endured to the end” are of all people most to be pitied. So how is it relevant, in Christian terms, that those who hold certain views will suffer for holding them — that those who hold the view that Gushee has publicly held for around twenty months are powerful enough to punish those who haven’t quite caught up with him?
A sermon preached to the Episcopal clergy of Dallas , April 13, 2016. The texts were the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7:51 – 8:1) and the “I am the bread of life” passage, John 6:30-35.
Starting with Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People in the 1930s, we have in the last 80 years or so seen an endless procession of books offering us strategies for … well, winning friends and influencing people.
It appears that Stephen did not read any of them.
When I read this passage from the Acts of the Apostles I find myself remembering Frederick Buechner’s line: “Nobody ever invited a prophet home for dinner more than once.”
And yet, when Stephen chastises his audience for their failures to listen to the prophets, while we’re told they are enraged, they keep listening. They keep listening, perhaps, because they realize this is the sort of thing that prophets do. Only a few years earlier they had heard John the baptizer talking to them in this way, demanding their repentance. And of course a long line of prophets had preceded him in such denunciations. Possibly by this point in the history of Israel listening to this kind of speech had become a kind of performance art, something that people might talk about later on and say, “Now, that was good. He got us worked up there, didn’t he? Of course, he’s no Jeremiah, but still…”
But then Stephen goes too far. Denouncing the children of Israel for their unfaithfulness – well, that’s par for the course, that’s part of the game, is it not? But saying that this Jesus who was so recently crucified, who suffered the most shameful of deaths, is standing at the right hand of God? That cannot be tolerated.
To “stand at the right hand of God”: this is, after all, a Messianic designation — see for instance the opening of Psalm 110: “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” It seems likely that it was this claim for Jesus that broke the crowd’s patience with Stephen — especially since many of those listening to Stephen had shouted, not many days earlier, “Crucify him!” But in any case Stephen goes to his death, the first martyr for the cause of Jesus the Christ.
If we turn from this pivotal event in the early life of the Church, and go back in time to our Gospel reading, a moment from early in Jesus’s public ministry — here too we have a scene describing an encounter between a prophet and his audience, but this one is less contentious. No one is enraged; no one gets stoned; but the audience is, shall we say, somewhat skeptical.
(This is one of those relatively rare instances when the lectionary gives us only part of a story; you can’t really make sense of what’s happening here without looking a little earlier and a little later in the story. It’s easy to see why the lectionary-makers did this: John 6 is so rich, and so absolutely central to the Gospel, that it gets broken into small chunks for our rumination. But we need to keep a somewhat larger piece in mind when when we’re chewing on one of those small chunks.)
Now, the skepticism of this crowd is not invincible. They’re willing to be won over. All they’re asking for is a sign. In general, Jesus is extremely unsympathetic to demands for signs: as he says elsewhere, “A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign.” But this time he lets it go — which is interesting, because if a crowd ever deserves a good tongue-lashing, it’s this one.
Why? Because they had just received, one day earlier, a sign, an astonishing one: the feeding of the multitudes. Jesus had filled their bellies, and they liked that, so they’ve climbed into boats and crossed the Sea of Galilee to find him and get a refill. Jesus knows what they want, and says so — this is from just before our passage for today — :“Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.”
So he’s onto them, but they’re still determined to wheedle something out of him. “Look, Rabbi,” they say — they start this conversation by referring to him respectfully as Rabbi, teacher — “we’re not here for the food, far from it, we just want you to demonstrate your authority so we will know that you are indeed speaking and acting on God’s behalf. So what would be a good sign? … Now, how about manna, or something like manna — bread, maybe? That worked for Moses.”
A transparent ruse! And yet Jesus does not lash out at them. He is remarkably patient. He just wants them to understand the situation. They got fed yesterday, but today they’re hungry again. In fact, even if what they really wanted was a sign, they would be hungry for a new sign tomorrow, too. Signs are not any more filling than bread. Wouldn’t they prefer the bread from God that gives life to the world?
Indeed they would. They like this idea very much. On the basis of this offer they elevate their respect for Jesus: before he had been Rabbi but now they call him Lord — Kyrie. Now, this is a curious form of address. It doesn’t mean the LORD God, which is why many modern translations render the word as “Sir.” But that may be misleading too, in the other direction. That Messianic passage from Psalm 110 I mentioned earlier — “The LORD says to my lord,” etc. — in the Septuagint “my lord” is also Kyrie.
So this crowd is treating Jesus with extreme deference — as long as they think they have a chance of manipulating him into providing them this bread from Heaven that gives life to the world. Because wouldn’t that be great, to have such bread? Maybe it would last a long time; maybe it could be stored safely; maybe they wouldn’t have to row back and forth across the lake to chase down this rabbi, or prophet, or whatever he is, to get more of it.
Unfortunately for them, Jesus doesn’t cooperate. He simply says: “I am the bread of life” — a statement that means nothing to them. (If we follow the rest of John’s narrative, we see that this is but the first of a series of “I am” sayings, some of which — especially “Before Abraham was, I AM” — get Jesus into a lot of trouble. But I don’t think anybody could have read a claim to divinity into this first “I am” statement. It only seems portentous in retrospect.
This much is clear, though: Jesus is telling them to stop thinking of their bellies, stop trying to manipulate him into performing a work that will get them what they already want. They need to turn to … to him. Not to his message, not even at this moment to the Father who sent him, but to himself. (“I and the Father are one,” he will explain later. “He who has seen me has seen the Father.”)
So, no, he doesn’t cooperate. And, we’re told in verse 41, the crowd “grumbled” about him. They’re not angry — not yet — but they grow irritable. He isn’t what we thought he was. Or thought he might be.
If you take the whole of John 6 and link it to the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7, you can see the arc of the natural, unredeemed person’s attitude towards Jesus and the message of the Gospel. First curiosity; then perhaps excitement; then discontent; then hatred. What begins with the gathering together to hear a new voice ends with the flinging of stones, or, if we do things judicially rather than in the heat of temper, the nailing of a body to a cross.
And this happens because we want Jesus to give us the food we already know, already like. In our natural state, we can’t abide it when he insists on giving us instead the food that, though we refuse to acknowledge it, we desperately need. One of the saddest aspects of the Gospel story is this: only when they do not yet know what Jesus offers do the people in the crowd make requests of him. Once they hear what he has come to give them, they turn aside. They go away.
May we never turn aside. May we never prefer our familiar food, our daily bread, to the food that Jesus offers: himself. May we say, this day and every day, “Lord, give us this bread always.” And may we be granted the great, great privilege of sharing this food with others who have never tasted it. Amen.
Alton Sterling was shot and killed by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A great many things will happen on social media in the next few days, almost all of them predictable, few of them encouraging.
One of the predictable things is that Christians will offer “thoughts and prayers”; another is that atheists will rage at them for doing so. We’ll hear a lot about the uselessness of thoughts and prayers, mainly from people who think deploying Twitter hashtags counts as genuine activism.
Christians are commanded to pray. We are told to pray without ceasing; we are told to pray for our enemies; we are told to pray even when we do not know what to pray for, because in such cases the Holy Spirit will intercede for us. I would ask my fellow Christians to offer prayer in the aftermath of Alton Sterling’s killing; but I would also ask them to remember that typing the words “sending thoughts and prayers” is not praying.
We can and should do better than that. For starters, we could say what we are praying for. We pray for God to receive Alton Sterling into His presence and comfort him and wipe away every tear. We pray that God will comfort the friends and family of Alton Sterling — and all the people of Baton Rouge, and all the people of color in this land who live every day in fear — and give them peace in their spirits and hope for better days in this world as well as that eternal hope that transcends all others.
We pray, Lord, that you will turn the hearts of those who kill to peaceableness; that you will lead them to repentance; that you will make justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Further: May we remember that prayer ought to be the fuel of the spirit, the fuel that gives us the strength and the hope that alone can sustain work for justice and peace. “Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace” — make me an instrument. Set me to work. In these dark days let me at least light a candle.
I don’t know exactly what Benedict Option evangelism might look like. I don’t know what kind of diminished numbers of converts we might see in the coming decades as a result of the collapse of American “Christendom.” But I do imagine that if Christians decide to do what Griffiths recommended in his blog post—if we begin to polish and attend afresh to our own practices of discipleship and faithfulness—we may end up seeing many more people embrace what the church teaches about marriage as both comprehensible and convincing. It has happened already for some, and it will go on happening, please God.
Wesley Hill. I think this is true, but I want also to suggest that Wesley may be thinking about these matters in ways that are not fully compatible with the BenOp idea, at least as I understand it. I think these reservations apply also to Leah Libresco’s recent reflections.
Both Wesley and Leah write about the BenOp as something that could be attractive right here and right now, especially to people of their generation. And that may well be true. But the emphasis of the BenOp, as I understand it, is to focus our attention on very long-term strategies: how can people devoted to serious, authentic, deeply traditional Christian living (faith, thought, action) be shepherded through a culture that acts as a powerful corrosive upon that form of living? — a culture in which almost no one will think that form of living attractive, because they have been catechized into another and very different way of life?
I’m groping for the right metaphor here, but I think that Wesley and Leah are wondering how we orthodox Christians will do in the cultural Olympics, and I’m saying that we can’t think about that now because we need to dress our many wounds.
A thought I had while eating hot dogs with friends today: What if Christian colleges and universities were to think of educating their students into distinctive charisms? And took as their models some of the charisms of the Roman Catholic religious orders?
- Students called primarily to service would explore a Franciscan charism
- Those called to preach and teach: a Dominican charism
- Those called to live out their faith in commitment to a particular place: a Benedictine charism
- Those called to a scholarly life, with its inherent cosmopolitanism and pursuit of intellectual communities wherever they can be found: a Jesuit charism
Each of these paths could be pursued within a single institution, if its faculty and curriculum were flexible enough. In an ideal world — which we do not live in, mind you — a structure like this could replace, or at least complement, the more typical pursuit of a “major.”
The inability of evangelicals to agree on how slavery should be construed according to Scripture, which all treated as their ultimate religious norm, was in fact connected to the economic individualism of American society. The recourse to arms for civil war did reflect, at the very least, a glaring weakness in republican and democratic polity. From the outside [i.e. in Europe] it was clear that American material interests exerted a strong influence on American theological conclusions. … Foreign commentary makes clear how tightly American religious convictions were bound to general patterns of American life. Only because religious belief and practice had grown so strong before the [Civil War and Slavery] conflict, only because they had done so much to create the nation that went to war, did that conflict result in such a great challenge to religious belief and practice after the war. The theological crisis of the Civil War was that while voluntary reliance on the Bible had contributed greatly to the creation of American national culture, that same voluntary reliance on Scripture led only to deadlock over what should be done about slavery. … The issue for American history was that only two courses of action seemed open when confronting such a deadlock. The first was the course taken in the Civil war, which effectively handed the business of the theologians over to the generals to decide by ordeal what the Bible meant. … The second [course of action] though never self-consciously adopted by all Americans in all circumstances, has been followed since the Civil War. That course is an implicit national agreement not to base public policy of any consequence on interpretations of scripture. The result of following that second course since the Civil War has been ambiguous. In helping to provoke the war and greatly increase its intensity, the serious commitment to Scripture rendered itself ineffective for shaping broad policy in the public arena. In other words, even before there existed a secularization in the United States brought on by new immigrants, scientific acceptance of evolution, the higher criticism of scripture, and urban industrialization, Protestants during the Civil War had marginalized themselves as bearers of religious perspective in the body politic.
The chronicles of American Christianity are littered with pronouncements of the shallowness of evangelicalism—set-ups for testimonies of leaving the faith entirely, or (far better) departing for greener pastures within Christendom. But the Lincoln Park Zoo best exemplifies my experience. I have, admittedly, supplemented my evangelical diet with a hearty dose of high church Anglicanism. Nevertheless, as I’ve pursued the study of ancient Orthodox and medieval Catholic Christianity, I’ve been consistently surprised to discover the same things I learned as an evangelical convert. Decades ago someone wrote a bestseller entitled “All I really need to Know I learned in Kindergarten” (including, I presume, how to work the anti-intellectual American book market). Nevertheless, I’m tempted to say that all I really need to know about Christian life I learned in the evangelical culture that I so desperately tried to escape.
The individual fairy tale is not itself a myth, but it presupposes a mythic framework of surprise, dependence or vulnerability, the balancing of anxiety with expectation: a thumbnail sketch of human experience in a bewildering natural and emotional environment.
Perhaps the problem with specific fairy tales becoming our shared myths, in the sense Warner suggests, is that they turn so easily these days into dramas of the individual psyche with supernatural special effects: either leaving us in a world of paralysing moral ambiguity or (in the Disneyfied version) offering salvation through the discovery of unsuspected inner resources (we can all be what we most want to be). Against this, both the original fairy tales and the chaotic romance of the Arabic wonder stories present a world of sharper edges, larger shocks, and possibilities of unmerited help, as well as danger, from outside. And that, in one form or another, may turn out to be more like the mythology we really need.
In other words, the Christian alternative to the post-religious spirituality outlined earlier is not simply ‘religion’ as some sort of intellectual and moral system but the corporately experienced reality of the Kingdom, the space that has been cleared in human imagination and self-understanding by the revealing events of Jesus’ life. Standing in this place, I am made aware of what is fundamental and indestructible about my human identity: that I am the object of divine intention and commitment, a being freely created and never abandoned. Standing in this place, I am also challenged to examine every action or policy in my life in the light of what I am; and I am, through the common life of the ‘Assembly’, made able to change and to be healed, to feed and be fed in relations with others in the human city. Faced with the claims of non-dogmatic spirituality, the believer should not be insisting anxiously on the need for compliance with a set of definite propositions; he or she should be asking whether what happens when the Assembly meets to adore God and lay itself open to his action looks at all like a new and transforming environment, in which human beings are radically changed.
Vernon Watkins wrote in an obituary that Thomas had lived his life as a consistent manifestation of Christian principle. This has provoked some mockery, or at least some condescending remarks about the blind affection felt by the fathomlessly patient, saintly and charitable Watkins. But he was serious. Thomas was no admirer or adherent of conventional religion; but his entire work struggles to articulate both a sense of the appalling and rich depths of the natural world and a clear-eyed compassion for all the varieties of human oddity.
Eli Jenkins’s evening hymn from Under Milk Wood is another over-anthologised piece, certainly inviting the label of sentimentality. Yet those rather haunting words – “O please to keep Thy lovely eye/On all poor creatures born to die” – tell us volumes about Thomas; about a poetry (and prose) “singing in chains” about our human involvement in a material world where death and birth alike open doors of perception.
The mature practitioner (not me) will discover a steady clarity in the vision of self and world, and, in “advanced” states, an awareness of unbroken inner light, with the strong sense of an action going on within that is quite independent of your individual will – the prayer “praying itself”, not just human words but a connection between God transcendent and God present and within. Ritual anchors, ritual aligns, harmonises, relates. And what happens in the “Jesus Prayer” is just the way an individual can make real what is constantly going on in the larger-scale worship of the sacraments. The pity is that a lot of western Christianity these days finds all this increasingly alien. But I don’t think any one of us can begin to discover again what religion might mean unless we are prepared to expose ourselves to new ways of being in our bodies. But that’s a long story.
Evangelical theology cannot be ‘pro-gay’ – but neither can it be ‘pro-straight’. As I understand it evangelical theology is, or should be, opposed to all idolatries indifferently. This is precisely because it is, or should be, ‘pro-human’. I’ve argued before that classical evangelical practices of holiness in the nineteenth century involved profound subversions of then-standard ideas of masculinity and femininity. There is plenty of good scholarship on the reconstructions of femininity away from the domestic sphere into political and social activism. The reconstructions of masculinity away from celebrations of machismo, violence, and alcohol consumption and towards a more submissive, gentle, family-oriented life have not been quite so well studied. But they too are clear. Evangelicalism in its classical forms undermined and reconstructed the culturally normal gender roles of the day; it will do the same in our day, if it has an adequate grasp of the gospel.
(Another post from a class blog.)
Bunyan’s emotional and spiritual turmoil is caused, primarily, by one core element of the Calvinist theology that he espoused and never seemed to question (that is, he either believed in this theology or no theology at all). That element is the doctrine of election in its specific strict Calvinist form, that of double predestination. As the Canons of the Synod of Dordt put it, God did not just predestine some (the elect) to salvation, but also predestined all others (the reprobate) to damnation. He chose “to leave them in the common misery into which, by their own fault, they have plunged themselves; not to grant them saving faith and the grace of conversion; but finally to condemn and eternally punish those who have been left in their own ways and under God’s just judgment, not only for their unbelief but also for all their other sins, in order to display his justice.”
So the question for Bunyan is this: From before the foundation of the world God chose me to be either among the damned or among the saved, but how can I tell which it is? That is, there was nothing he could do to change his predestined place; all he could do was to read the signs, interpret the events of his life to see what pattern emerged. For him and all the other Puritan autobiographers, this was the reason for self-writing: to discern the pattern that would tell them whether they were damned or saved.
Bunyan illustrated this great divide between the elect and reprobate in a widely-distributed “Mapp Shewing the Order and Causes of Salvation and Damnation.” Click on the image below to get a larger version.
‘Sacrifice’ is another word liable to misunderstanding. It is generally held to be noble and loving in proportion as its sacrificial nature is consciously felt by the person who is sacrificing himself. The direct contrary is the truth. To feel sacrifice consciously as self-sacrifice argues a failure in love. When a job is undertaken from necessity, or from a grim sense of disagreeable duty, the worker is self-consciously aware of the toils and pains he undergoes, and will say: ‘I have made such and such sacrifices for this.’ But when the job is a labour of love, the sacrifices will present themselves to the worker—strange as it may seem—in the guise of enjoyment. Moralists, looking on at this, will always judge that the former kind of sacrifice is more admirable than the latter, because the moralist, whatever he may pretend, has far more respect for pride than for love.
— Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker
I must admit to going back and forth on the topic of the New Homophiles. Apostolic celibacy is a great good. The struggle to be faithful Catholics is a great good. Trying to identify with Christ is exactly what we are all called to do. Spiritual friendship could be a good thing though I worry they envision something like Charles Ryder reading scripture with Sebastian Flyte. Can we accept them on their terms? I do not know.
— The New Homophiles: A Closer Look | Crisis Magazine. What, indeed, are we to do? We are not under judgment; we judge. We need not worry about acceptance, we only have to decide whom we will, or will not, accept. We keep the gates; we decide who is or is not worthy of admission. We instruct; we have nothing to learn.
It must be awesome to be “we.”
MACON, GA—Sources confirmed today that the brainwashed morons at First Baptist Assembly of Christ, all of whom blindly accept whatever simplistic fairy tales are fed to them, volunteer each Wednesday night to provide meals to impoverished members of the community. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of people in town who have fallen on hard times and are unable to afford to put food on the table, so we try to help out as best we can,” said 48-year-old Kerri Bellamy, one of the mindless sheep who adheres to a backward ideology and is incapable of thinking for herself, while spooning out homemade shepherd’s pie to a line of poor and homeless individuals. “It feels great to share our blessings with the less fortunate. Plus, it’s fun to work alongside all the members of our [corrupt institution of propaganda and lies] who come out each week.” As of press time, the brainless, unthinking lemmings had donated winter clothing they no longer wore to several needy families and still hadn’t opened their eyes to reality.
As a student of family life from the outside, I’ve come to a conclusion that family life, as opposed to celibacy, is a life of high highs and low lows. The high is that you are loved by someone who has promised never to leave you. You are needed by children who are utterly dependent on you, and who return your smiles. The low is that you may lose those people to death, or they may at some point reject you.
The single life is more moderated and less risky. The high is that my will is never crossed. The low is that my will is never crossed. Another low is that I am lonely. But at least I don’t have another person who is directly responsible for my loneliness.
Another contentious area for Hill is religion. Much of his verse dramatises a passionate wrestling with faith. Is he a Christian poet? “Well, it’s a tag, isn’t it?” says Hill. “They tag you with a convenient epithet.” He pauses. “I’m reasonably au fait with the Christian documentation. I’m quite able to use theological terms.” He turns to the Rev Alice Goodman: “Can I say that I dislike the Church of England in so many ways without harming you?” he asks. The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has written appreciatively on the following lines from Canaan: “I say it is not faithless / to stand without faith, keeping open / vigil at the site.” One reason why Williams and other members of the clergy love Hill, Goodman claims, is “because he expresses the things about the Church and about the faith that they felt but could not in their position articulate”. Yet she reminds him he has written sensitively on Vaughan’s and Donne’s work. “Yes,” he replies, “because it’s excellent and fascinating. Not because I suddenly feel that Vaughan is a brother in the faith or that reading Donne converted me to a love of Christ.”
Goodman points out that he kneels at the Church altar on Sundays. Her husband, she says, is “communicant but resentful”.
“When did I say that?” says Hill.
“You didn’t, I just said it now.”
“It sounds like me.”
“I’ve been married to you for some years,” she says drily.
It was markedly different from the sermon delivered by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on the eve of the previous conclave, in 2005, when he rallied the cardinals by pitting the virtuous Church against the world’s “dictatorship of relativism.” That sermon, encapsulating Ratzinger’s vision of the Church’s moral superiority, was widely perceived as having sealed his election. Now a cardinal was speaking very differently. “One must humble himself before God and men, and try to eradicate the evil at all costs,” Grech said.
Is that what Cardinal Ratzinger preached? Well, you can read the sermon for yourself. Speaking to his fellow cardinals, Ratzinger said, “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.” He said to them, “We must develop this adult faith; we must guide the flock of Christ to this faith. And it is this faith — only faith — that creates unity and is fulfilled in love.” He said to them, “The fruit that endures is therefore all that we have sown in human souls: love, knowledge, a gesture capable of touching hearts, words that open the soul to joy in the Lord. So let us go and pray to the Lord to help us bear fruit that endures.”
For a “virtuous church” it, along with its leaders, seemed to require a great deal of prayer in order for it to become what it should be. Only someone, like Carroll, with a desperate determination to see Francis as Benedict’s opposite in every way would be able to reach so willfully perverse a reading of Benedict’s sermon. That the Church’s leadership is failing its people is a point on which Benedict and Francis are in perfect agreement.
He brought light out of darknesse, not out of a lesser light; he can bring thy Summer out of Winter, though thou have no Spring; though in the wayes of fortune, or understanding, or conscience, thou have been benighted till now, wintred and frozen, clouded and eclypsed, damped and benummed, smothered and stupefied till now, now God comes to thee, not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of the spring, but as the Sun at noon to illustrate all shadowes, as the sheaves in harvest, to fill all penuries, all occasions invite his mercies, and all times are his seasons.
There is no guarantee of redemption-through-love: redemption is merely given as possible. We are thereby at the very core of Christianity: it is God himself who made a Pascalian wager. By dying on the cross, he made a risky gesture with no guaranteed final outcome; he provided us—humanity—with the empty S1, Master-Signifier, and it is up to us to supplement it with the chain of S2. Far from providing the conclusive dot on the “i,” the divine act rather stands for the openness of a New Beginning, and it falls to humanity to live up to it, to decide its meaning, to make something of it. As with Predestination, which condemns us to frantic activity, the Event is a pure-empty-sign, and we have to work to generate its meaning. Therein resides the terrible risk of revelation: what “Revelation” means is that God took upon himself the risk of putting everything at stake, of fully “engaging himself existentially” by way, as it were, of stepping into his own picture, becoming part of creation, exposing himself to the utter contingency of existence.
In general, it is extremely foolish … to suppose it should really be such an easy affair with faith and wisdom that they just arrive over the years as a matter of course, like teeth, a beard and that sort of thing. No, whatever a human being comes to as a matter of course, and whatever things come to him as a matter of course, it is definitely not faith and wisdom.
One can, of course, and perhaps even should, question Rorty’s account of the various ways in which people are socialized into assuming the existence of non-contingent patterns. After all, it is also possible for one’s socialization to pull the other way – away from a recognition of pattern rather than towards it. I know of no more powerful illustration of this point than the concluding pages of V. S. Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness, a memoir of his first visit to his ancestral homeland. “The world is illusion, the Hindus say,” and Naipaul reflects that while he was in India he had come close to the “total Indian negation”: during the year that he lived on the subcontinent it had very nearly “become the basis of thought and feeling.” But, back in Europe, he can no longer find that “basis,” no longer share that “negation” – yet he is not sure whether he has recovered the proper orientation to his life or lost it: “And already … in a world where illusion could only be a concept and not something felt in the bones, it was slipping away from me. I felt it as something true which I could never adequately express and never seize again.” The possibility that people born and educated in the West in our time might be culturally formed in such a way that contingency is what they “feel in their bones” — so that a belief in the world as illusion, or in the providence of a just God, is at most a mere “concept” — is one that people like Rorty never take seriously, even if their theory obliges them to an acknowledgment of it.
“To be honest, before Derek confessed his sins, repented, and sought my grace in pious supplication, I was really looking forward to sitting on my throne and judging him,” said Christ, noting that if it were up to Him, Moehr would still be spiritually empty and adrift. “I definitely thought I’d be condemning him in a few decades and casting his soul into the lake of fire and brimstone. That was an idea that I was 100 percent behind.”
“I honestly never thought Derek of all people would actually commit his life to me,” the frustrated King of Kings added. “And frankly, I don’t see why this always has to be my responsibility.”
Quite simply, there is no formation without repetition. There is no habituation without being immersed in a practice over and over again… So it is precisely our allergy to repetition in worship that has undercut the counterformative power of Christian worship—because all kinds of secular liturgies shamelessly affirm the good of repetition. We’ve let the devil, so to speak, have all the repetition. And we, as liturgical animals, are only too happy to find our rhythms in such repetition. Unless Christian worship eschews the cult of novelty and embraces the good of faithful repetition, we will constantly be ceding habituation to secular liturgies.