Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Primatial Inadequacy

Today Katharine Jefferts Schori begins her nine year term as Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church. In the corner of the church that I inhabit, this is not greeted as a happy event. The discontent transcends the current presenting problem of how the church should incorporate the faith and the gifts of gay and lesbian Christians into its life. It's bigger than that. Some among my acquaintance go so far as to assert that she ought not to even be considered a Christian.

In the days following her election in June, I defended Bishop Katharine (as I understand she enjoys being addressed) with respect to her use of "mother Jesus" language in her General Convention sermon. (She was drawing from a well that lies clearly within the tradition of Anglican spirituality, though it was a pastoral and strategic faux pas on her part to use it then.) So I've tried hard to believe the best about her, to give her the benefit of the doubt. Yeah, she's a liberal who's all about the agenda of (so-called) "full inclusion." But "not a Christian"? Surely my friends are being a little intemperate.

Well, my friends have also been a little worked up about some comments she made to Time magazine later in the summer, in which, responding to a question about the putative exclusivist claims of Christianity, she said something like, "For those who follow the Christian tradition, we know Jesus to be our vehicle to the divine." But, presumably, God makes other arrangements for those who do not follow the Christian tradition. Troubling. But maybe the interviewer and the interviewer's editor didn't give her ample opportunity to explain and elucidate.

So I was excited when, yesterday, on the eve of assuming office, the Presiding Bishop's interview with public radio journalist Robin Young was made public in both audio and transcript versions. I tuned in to the audio, and then read the transcript. Lucky for me, Ms Young honed right in on the same question that the Time reporter had posed: Is Jesus the only way to God?
Now, for myself, I think I have somewhat generous views on the subject. I do not agree with those Christians who insist that any human being anywhere who lives and dies without ever having said something like "the sinner's prayer," or been validly baptized (depending on what brand of fundamentalism one embraces), is condemned to eternal separation from God and all that it means to be human. Without compromising the truth that all salvation is through Christ, I don't think I'm straying too far off the reservation in thinking that God is capable of saving someone "through Christ" who may not be aware that he or she is being saved "through Christ." It's relatively easy for me to be a Christian. I had the good fortune to be born into a culture that, while no longer overtly Christian, is at least thoroughly marinated in Christianity. Why should that accident of birth give me an advantage over someone born in Mongolia or Uzbekistan or Borneo or the Amazon basin? Perhaps, I thought, Bishop Katharine's views are not all that different from my own. So I was all ears.

Here's what she said:

Christians understand that Jesus is the route to God. Umm– that is not to say that Muslims, or Sikhs, or Jains, come to God in a radically different way. They come to God through human experience.. through human experience of the divine. Christians talk about that in terms of Jesus.

Uh, what? Kind of opaque. Kind of evasive. Definitely not clear. Maybe she wasn't far enough into her cup of coffee. Appaently, Robin Young thought the same thing, because she just asked the question again:

RY: So you're saying there are other ways to God.

KJS: Uhh... human communities have always searched for relationship that which is beyond them.. with the ultimate.. with the divine. For Christians, we say that our route to God is through Jesus. Uhh.. uh..that doesn't mean that a Hindu.. uh.. doesn't experience God except through Jesus. It-it-it says that Hindus and people of other faith traditions approach God through their.. own cultural contexts; they relate to God, they experience God in human relationships, as well as ones that transcend human relationships; and Christians would say those are our experiences of Jesus; of God through the experience of Jesus.

RY: It sounds like you're saying it's a parallel reality, but in another culture and language.

KJS: I think that's accurate.. I think that's accurate.

Well, there we have it. Parallel reality. That goes way beyond the sort of speculative generosity that I indulge in. It goes against, among other things, the very liturgy of the church over which Bishop Katharine now presides. Look at the fourth of the five Solemn Collects in the Liturgy of Good Friday (BCP, p.279). Here are the opening biddings:

Let us pray for all who have not received the Gospel of Christ;
For those who have never heard the word of salvation
For those who have lost their faith
For those hardened by sin or indifference
For the contemptuous and the scornful
For those who are enemies of the cross of Christ and
persecutors of his disciples
For those who in the name of Christ have persecuted others
That God will open their hearts to the truth, and lead them to
faith and obedience.

Merciful God, creator of all the peoples of the earth and lover of souls: Have compassion on all who do not know you as you are revealed in your Son Jesus Christ; let your Gospel be preached with grace and power to those who have not heard it; turn the hearts of those who resist it; and bring home to your fold those who have gone astray; that there may be one flock under one shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I can't imagine that there could be a more arresting contrast between the Presiding Bishop's response to Robin Young's softball questions and the clear teaching of the Episcopal Church as enshrined in the Book of Common Prayer. And I haven't even opened a Bible yet. Don't even need to. I am particularly troubled by the Bishop's assent to the interviewer's characterization of her position that other religions are "parallel" routes to God for those of "another culture and language." This is not only a theological train wreck (the Church being "catholic"--i.e. universal--and all), it's elitist and racist. What language or cultural vocabulary does one have to be fluent in in order to qualify to be a Christian?

I'm enough of a Catholic in my theology to affirm the baptismal identity of Katharine Jefferts Schori. So I don't go along with those who say she's not a Christian. But it's a distinction with nary a difference. She is manifestly not qualified to be a teacher of the Christian faith. She is not qualified to be the Primate of a Christian church. This is sad.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Father Dan –

It seems to me that the sad fact of Bishop Katharine’s election as Primate of the EC is just another symptom of an ailing “catholic” (universal) Church. For one thing, where in the Bible does God condone the many denominations we have come up with over the centuries? And yet the more time passes, the more divided His Church becomes—within the denominations, and even within individual congregations (leading to further church splits). I wonder sometimes if Our Lord doesn’t weep when He looks at how we’re mucking things up! However, I believe things have to get worse before they get better (i.e., Christ’s return), so I suppose I’m really not too surprised that someone like KJS would be placed in a leadership position despite her obvious inadequacies.

As I read the excerpts of the interview with the Bishop, it occurred to me that this is probably a good time for me to exercise another prayer “chore” (Thank you for your Wednesday night classes on prayer!), i.e., praying for our enemies (Matthew 5:44). I have to confess that I don’t think that prayer is necessarily going to change the Bishop’s stance on anything (lack of faith on my part, perhaps?), but it’s probably a good idea anyway—that God, if He so desires, might change my heart and attitude towards her and what she represents… :)


Jon said...

She may be assuming a difference of meaning between "Jesus" (used to put the emphasis on the man and the specific name) and "Christ" (used to emphasis that Jesus is also the second person of the Trinity) which could make her position more sensible. If she is using this understanding of these two ways to talk about our Lord she could be read as affirming what you have also affirmed, that people can be saved through Christ without recognizing themselves as Christians. I suspect that her position may be sufficiently more liberal than your's that she might say that their path could work better than the institution of the Church, but some people do find it very difficult to deal with the institution's sinning.

If this hope is correct, then what is parallel is the all to human institutions through/in which the Word of God saves people.


Anonymous said...

Hi Father Dan,

I didn't quite follow this comment

"This is not only a theological train wreck (the Church being "catholic"--i.e. universal--and all), it's elitist and racist. What language or cultural vocabulary does one have to be fluent in in order to qualify to be a Christian"

I can't really see KJS's comments as elitist, but rather they look like the 'many paths up the mountain' religious relativism metaphor. Reducing Christianity to a cultural expression of human experiences of the divine, and Christ as one vehicle to the divine (as her Time interview put it). This to me is the really troubling part.

I would hope that Jon's speculation that she really meant to affirm something like the Catholic 'dominus iesus' position, but was inarticulate. However, given her association with the activist wing of the TEC and personal friendship with John Spong, I don't hold much hope for this being the case.

Daniel Martins said...

What I mean by "elitist and racist" is the implication in KJS's remarks that the path one finds to God is dependent on the culture one was born in, as if Christianity is more "native" to Europeans and their descendants than it is to Arabs, Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, or indigenous peoples in various parts of the world. So if one is born in Cambodia, then Buddhism is one's "natural" path to God, and if certain parts of India, then Hinduism, and if Yemen, then Islam. Incidentally, I don't think the adherents of any of these other world religions would be any more comfortable with these notions than I am. But I do know that what the Episcopal Church celebrates at Epiphany is the universality of the gospel: Reconciliation with God *through Christ* is for all people in all places at all times. Frankly, who God saves and how God saves them (the instrumental means, that is; I always assume Christ is the ultimate means)is a mystery to me, and I certainly have no inordinate fascination with who goes to Hell and why. All I know is that, as a Christian, the only message it is mine to proclaim is "Jesus saves; Repent and believe the gospel."

For what it's worth, I don't think Katharine was trying to articulate a "Dominus Iesus" theology and just did a poor job of it. She's smarter than that.