Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Quotable and Ponderable...

... though I can't precisely say why. It's just an intuition.

I'm about to make the turn from the "at home" portion of my vacation (this is the eleventh day thereof) to the "on the road" portion (the next twelve days, in eastern and northern Michigan and Door County, Wisconsin). The summer reading that I'm in the middle of, and which I'll be taking with me, is Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent, one of the (many) classics I missed when reading was forced on me and which I'm getting around to only in my dotage.

It's Easter morning, and the story's narrator, Ethan Allen Hawley, is conversing with his wife in their kitchen after getting home from church.
"Do you know whether you believe in the church or not, Ethan? Why do you call me silly names? You hardly ever use my name."
"To avoid being repetitious and tiresome, but in my heart your name rings like a bell. Do I believe? What a question! Do I lift each shining phrase out of the Nicene creed, loaded like a shotgun shell, and inspect it? No. It isn't necessary. It's a singular thing, Mary. If my mind and soul and body were as dry of faith as a navy bean, the words, 'The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures,' would still make my stomach turn over and put a flutter in my chest and light a fire in my brain."
"I don't understand."
"Good girl. Neither do I. Let's just say that when I was a little baby, and all my bones soft and malleable, I was put in a small Episcopal cruciform box and so took my shape. Then, when I broke out of the box, the way a baby chick escapes an egg, is it strange that I had the shape of a cross? Have you ever noticed that chickens are roughly egg-shaped?"
There is perhaps more truth here than can be spoken, more than was intended--more than Ethan intended, doubtless more than Steinbeck intended. It invites reflection.

Unless something quite unforeseeable happens, my mind will be other places than on blogging until well into the first week of August, and probably for a few days beyond that, as there will be a pile of demands waiting for me when I get back into harness. I intend to focus on the natural beauty of the Great Lakes and the northwoods, and to enjoy the mostly undivided attention of the one whose name rings like a bell in my heart.

Summer is, for me, the icon of "things as they were meant to be." I intend to drink it in with abandon, and store up such spiritual reserves as will help see me through the darkness and gloom that will descend inexorably all too quickly.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Christian or Christ Follower?

You are probably familiar with Apple's ad campaign wherein one character declares, "I'm a PC", and the others says, "I'm a Mac." The guy who says he's a Mac, of course, is young, hip, transparently self-assured, and comfortable with himself, while the man who represents the world of Windows is slightly older, a bit stodgy in his dress and demeanor, generally defensive and on edge. 

Imitation still being the sincerest form of flattery, there eventually appeared a video that is technically, I suppose, a spoof, but the intent behind the obvious humor was quite serious. Instead of a PC and a Mac, it featured a "Christian" and a "Christ follower, respectively. Just as the original was set up to make a Macintosh computer much more attractive than a PC, so the imitative spoof was set up to make being a "Christ follower" decidedly superior to being a "Christian." 

The implication is clearly that to be a Christ follower is to be accountable solely and directly to ... Christ. Simple. Transparent. Unaffected. Weighed down by nothing more substantive than the question mark at the end of "WWJD?". To be a Christian, by contrast, is to carry 2,000 years worth of baggage--controversies, councils, creeds, sacraments, orders, doctrines, dogmas, and institutional infrastructures. Why bother with all that? Why not just cut through it all and and just get on with following Jesus?

There are two angles (at least) from which to approach such a conclusion. One is the evangelical, ultra-low church, hyper-individualistic strain of piety and devotion that is fairly ubiquitous in the history of American Christianity. But another route to the same spot is the ultra-modern liberal deconstructionist school of thought represented by, inter alia, the Jesus Seminar. These two camps are pretty much mortal enemies, so I realize the irony of painting them with the same brush. But they both uphold, in differing ways, the notion that what we are accountable to is what the actual Jesus who got Palestinian dirt between his toes would want us to think an do. The fundamentalist would claim that such knowledge is unambiguously accessible on the pages of the New Testament. The modernist takes a more complex and sophisticated approach in proposing that the "historical Jesus" (a term coined about a century ago) is accessible by carefully combing through historical and literary artifacts with the disciplined and detached eye of a scholar. Importantly, however, both would contend that most, if not all, of what the generations succeeding Jesus' own said about him (for the modernist, this would include the way Paul theologized Jesus) ought to be taken with several grains of salt, if not tossed out completely. The two might come up with very different descriptions of what it looks like to be a "Christ follower," but they would both maintain a suspicious attitude toward the theological and institutional apparatus associated with being "Christian."

This is a pluralistic world and a free society, and I don't find myself particularly scandalized by these views. They are certainly nothing new. What utterly baffles me, however, is when someone who is personally implicated, by free choice, with institutional structures and commitments that are decidedly "Christian" takes the position of the cheeky "Christ follower." Yesterday, on the HoB/D listserv, there was a thread inspired by tomorrow's Epistle reading from Colossians that speaks of Christ being "pre-eminent." At one point, an Episcopal priest from Tennessee (his name is Peter Keese, which I share at his request), wrote this:
My thinking (still evolving, I hope) is that we misunderstand and misuse the notion - the reality, if you will - of incarnation. I'm suggesting that incarnation is a universal reality - Jesus being a symbol and example of what God is doing everywhere and all the time. It is not that I object to the notion of God incarnating in Jesus; what I object to is your (and my) reluctance to claim that God inhabits you (and me) no less fully.
I have heard such suggestions before--from Unitarians, other non-Christians, and from Episcopalian lay people who are poorly-catechized. But Peter (whom I know personally and with whom I have had a quite cordial relationship over the years) is a presbyter--an elder--who helps form candidates for ordained ministry and whose diocese has elected him to represent them at the last two General Conventions. So we're not talking about some crackpot on the margins of the institution.

In another part of the thread, another priest (again, someone I know personally, and who is in charge of a parish), gave voice to the modernist "Christ follower" position that traditional christology--from the language of "pre-eminence" in the New Testament to that of the creeds--represents the successful attempt to certain forces within the movement begun by the historical Jesus to exert political control over others. It's the shopworn "history is written by the winners" mantra.

I am grateful for occasional stark reminders of the very great theological divergence in our midst, not only on conclusions we draw on how to live faithfully and responsibly as Christians in our contemporary culture, not only on how best to apply the insights of our tradition, but on underlying core principles. Does it not seem that much of our talking past one another on issues du jour is a vain exercise when we're starting from such radically different places?

It all comes down to what we consider ourselves, both individually and as a "community of communities", accountable to. Is it the "Jesus of history" (per "Christ followers" of both the fundamentalist and modernist varieties)? Or is it the "Christ of faith" (per the catholic tradition, to which all the churches of the Anglican Communion are at least formally committed)? 

I am probably neither willing nor able to argue my case. All I can do is offer the observation that the underlying narrative of the "Christ follower" does not represent the "doctrine, discipline, and worship" of the Episcopal  Church. Rightly or wrongly, for better or for worse, we are Christians. I would contend that this does not prevent us from also being Christ-followers, but it does mean that we are committed to the notion that we see the path of discipleship through and with the community of all other Christ-followers, which is another way of speaking about the Church--with all of her scriptures, councils, creeds, orders, liturgies, and institutional infrastructure. There is no relationship with the (pre-eminent) Head without going through the Body (which is by nature something that can be seen and touched and has a "voice"). So, it is precisely in order to be followers of Christ that we are accountable to the Church--both as individuals and as local churches in respect to the Larger Whole.

I believe myself to be a Christ-follower. But the only way I know how to do that is by being a Christian.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Theology Exam Questions

OK, you have to be a bit of a geek in the area of academic theology to even get why some of these are funny, but if you are ...  most of them will be funny. Found them cleaning out an old file yesterday.

You may answer all or some of the following questions. Please turn in your answers before picking up your diploma.

1. Is there such a thing as a theologically indefensible proposition? If so, where did you last see one? Under what conditions?

2. How many different ways can you spell Schillebeeckx?

3. Has the Church always taught anything? Explain. And be specific.

4. Reflect on the Seven Deadly Sins. Describe how you have integrated these into your life. Be specific.

5. Who wrote the Summa Theologica, and why? What did they get out of it?

6. Why is Simon Stylites important in the history of Eccentric Spirituality?

7. Compare the discernment process of Ignatius with that of Sherlock Holmes.

8. Does Karl Rahner believe in verbs?

9. Which does not belong to the group?
      a. Rahner, Kung, Howdy Doody, Dulles, Schillebeexkz
      b. Ecclesiology, Christology, Mariology, Phrenology, Eschatology
      c. Esther, Dolly Parton, Ruth, Judith, Sarah
      d. bishop, cardinal, priest, deacon, cowboy
      e. John XXIII, Malcolm X, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II

10. Construct on a single legal-size sheet of paper a mock-up of the Trinity. Your construct should take into account the writing of John of St Thomas, Thomas of Aquin, Thomas the Apostle, an/or the Neo-Thomists.

11. Chart the progress of a mystic climbing of Dante's Mount of Purgation from the inside.

12. Discuss recent continental developments in astrology, Christology, and the linchpin theory of the universe.

13. Make an ethical critique of a hypothetical proposal to establish a papal sperm bank.

14. The great powers have loosed a nuclear war. Discuss the following propositions:
     a. Use of hard tack for a shelter liturgy is, for the duration, valid but illicit.
     b. A rack of shot guns at the shelter door will enlarge the chance of Christian survival.

15. If the headquarters of the Western Church are a Rome and Geneva, where are the hindquarters?

16. Taking into account the view of Norman Vincent Peale that Christ had everything going for him and blew it, refute the Servant Songs of Isaiah.

Update on Mexico and the Covenant

Apropos of the post immediately upstream from this one, do look here for some perceptive reflections on why it is "meet and right" that it is Mexico that is the first province to adopt the Anglican Covenant.

Here's a tidbit:
It is, therefore, highly appropriate that it should be Mexico - a land far removed from evensong in ancient English cathedrals - that has first adopted the Covenant. Mexico has pointed to the post-imperial, global Communion nature of 21st century Anglicanism. To again quote the Covenant, we Anglicans are "united across many cultures and languages".

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Muchas Gracias, Mexico!

When, in the wake of certain controversial decisions taken by the 2003 General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the ad hoc Lambeth Commission issued the document since known as the Windsor Report, the idea of an Anglican Covenant entered the radar screen, but was a relatively small blip near the margins. Most of us, some hopefully and some fearfully, were looking for something that would address past events, “fix” past events. A covenant, by contrast, would be a future-oriented enterprise—a good thing, perhaps, but not a front-burner issue.
During the intervening years, as events in the Anglican Communion have unfolded like a slow-motion train wreck, the Covenant has steadily inched ever closer to center stage. The evolving text went through three drafts, and the final text was commended to the provinces by the Anglican Consultative Council in May 2009—sans Part IV, which has since been “perfected” by a special committee and appended to the document. The covenant has been discussed and debated, formally and informally, all over the communion. It has been analyzed and criticized from the left and from the right. General Convention 2009 commended it to the various dioceses for study and feedback.
At each step of this process, however, the Anglican Covenant has been theoretical, an idea turned into a proposal.
Until last week, that is.
Last Wednesday, June 30, the Anglican Communion News Service reported that the Anglican Province of Mexico has become the first province to formally, by an act of its duly-constituted synod, adopt the Anglican Covenant.
This will have no immediate impact on anyone. But it’s big news, nonetheless, for two reasons:
  • The terms of the Covenant itself dictate that it becomes effective as soon as a province formally adopts it, for those provinces that so adopt it. So, with Mexico’s action, the Anglican Covenant is now a “fact on the ground.” The Mexican church has promised to abide by its terms, and presumably this includes its relations with provinces that have not (yet) adopted it.
  • That Mexico was the first is especially significant because of its historic close ties to the Episcopal Church. Indeed, the Mexican dioceses were all once part of TEC’s Province IX. It is a “daughter” to TEC. Conventional wisdom would have it that Mexico would share TEC officialdom’s stand-offish attitude toward the Covenant, and if it were to eventually embrace the agreement, it would be late in the game, after several other provinces have done so. But not so. The first Covenant-signer is TEC’s own offspring, right in our own backyard.
Honestly, to say that the future of the Anglican Communion is tenuous would be to substantially understate the reality we face. I don’t know that the Covenant will save it. I do know, however, that without the Covenant, its doom is sure. The Covenant may not be sufficient, but it is necessary. It may not lead us all the way out of our crisis, but it is the only thing presently pointing us in the direction of the exit. As I believe passionately that the Anglican Communion is a treasure eminently worth saving, I am committed to exercising whatever tiny influence I might have in its favor.
The Mexican church has done all Anglicans a service. Demos gracias al Dios!