Monday, September 29, 2014

Living With the End in Mind

Full disclosure: My initial formation as a Christian was in fundagelicalism (a neologism that I thought up, though I'm not the only one to have done so). I discovered the Anglican tradition during my college years in the early 1970s, and was confirmed in the Episcopal Church as a graduate student, in 1975. When I came under the hands of the Bishop of Los Angeles on that day, the intention of my heart and mind was that I was embracing Catholic Christianity, grabbing onto a golden thread that leads back across time to the apostles and to Jesus, accepting the essential givenness of the faith and laying aside the notion that I had either the authority or the responsibility to read the Bible, pray, and come up with my own theological understanding of any given question. It was a great relief.

Part of the Catholic package is a rather more robust view of the nature and significance of the Church than I had been accustomed to in my youth. In my evangelical upbringing, I was led to think of the "invisible" Church as a spiritual entity made up of of those who genuinely trusted Christ for their salvation, the number of which is known only to God. Institutional structures that bear the label "church" in one way or another are voluntary associations of like-minded individual Christian believers who come together for the purposes of worship, instruction and mutual encouragement, service, and mission. This might be called a low ecclesiology (theology of the Church), but the truth is that, while evangelical theologians have certainly devoted more pixels to the subject than I have just used in my broad stroke two sentence summary, ecclesiology is kind of an afterthought among evangelicals, an "Oh yeah ... " after detailed and sophisticated treatments of christology, soteriology, hermeneutics, and other chapter headings in a systematic theology textbook.

Among Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and some streams of the old-line Protestant traditions, however, ecclesiology garners proportionally more attention. Details may vary according to brand name and other considerations, but in each case the Church is seen as sacramental--that is, both a sign of and a tangible vehicle for God's redeeming and restoring the fabric of a universe corrupted by sin and death. It's not just a voluntary association, like the Rotary Club or the Moose Lodge, that one can join and unjoin as seems expedient. It's organic--a body, the Body of Christ--a family, a tribe, an ethnicity (read the First Epistle of Peter) into which one is born (most would say, via baptism), marked with the identity and nourished by the life of the risen Christ. I love ecclesiology. The doctorate it would no longer be prudent for me to pursue at my age and stage of life would probably be in that subject. I am grateful to be in a Christian tradition that takes ecclesiology seriously.

Now, one chapter in that systematic theology textbook that is likely to be heavily highlighted and underlined by my evangelical friends is the one on eschatology. Eschatology concerns Last Things--the wrapping up of the story, the end of history ("end" being understood in both of its senses; that is, as conclusion/cessation and as ultimate purpose). Wherever I've lived, it's never been difficult to drive around town and find a church offering a "prophecy seminar," or a Bible study on the last book of the New Testament, probably misrepresented as "Revelations," or a screening of a movie from the Left Behind series. I can remember having heated discussions--as a teenager, with my teenage peers; my God, what geeks we were!--over the fine points of premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism. We would debate the meaning of the Second Death, and the Great While Throne, and ... well, you get the point. Evangelicals may not do ecclesiology, but they certainly do do eschatology.

Anglicans ... not so much. We do say the creeds, of course, which include language about "the life everlasting" and "the resurrection of the dead," and that Jesus will "come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead." But I wonder whether these items often get serious attention in confirmation classes and adult formation programs. And we have in our calendar and lectionary the three Sundays preceding Advent, along with Advent Sunday itself, which form a sort of mini-season that focuses heavily on eschatological themes, though I fear that many (most?) preachers, liturgy planners, and musicians may not pull their weight in shining a light on these themes. And, if you parse the language of our liturgy in the right way, we have a rather high view of the eschatological dimension of the Eucharist. When the baptized faithful are gathered at the altar, time and space are transcended, and we participate in the Celestial Banquet, the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. The exquisitely thin veil that separates the living from the dead is pierced, and we enjoy koinonia (which is to say, holy communion) with those standing or kneeling next to us, and with those who have gone before us marked with the cross of Christ. What percentage of our communicants get that dimension of the Eucharist, however, is hard to say.

Still, even with these fairly robust creedal and liturgical linchpins, details are scant. Our biblical hermeneutic does not encourage us to see the text of Revelation as some kind of code that needs to be broken. "Rapture" is not in our vocabulary, so our position on how it relates in time to the Tribulation and/or the Millennium is "none of the above." We tend to just say, in effect, "In the end, God wins. Evil and death are defeated, and God's reign of justice, peace, and love prevails." It doesn't often occur to us to worry about anything more detailed than that.

And, for the most part, in my opinion, that's fine. For the most part. But there is, I think, one way that our tendency to be eschatologically laconic puts us at risk. When I look around my ecclesial environment, I see a default preference for an unreflective realized eschatology. Realized eschatology is the notion that the end of history (this time only in the sense of ultimate purpose) lies not in the future, but in the past. When Jesus announced the inbreaking arrival of the Kingdom of God, he was effectively initiating that Kingdom. The mission of his followers, then, is to continue that process, to "buil[d] Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land"--and every other land, green, pleasant, or otherwise. There is no cataclysmic apocalyptic future event that we need either anticipate or fear. It's up to us to cooperate with God in the construction of the New Jerusalem.

Now, I don't happen to think that realized eschatology offers a coherent--or even interesting, for that matter--account of either the biblical narrative or the gospel hope of Christians. It leaves me feeling very empty ... empty and bored. But it does not deserve to be dismissed casually, out of hand. It has been espoused by some eminent intellectual lights (the formidable New Testament scholar C.H. Dodd, for one). Rather, realized eschatology merits being engaged and taken seriously. But here's my point: So does whatever realized eschatology's opposite number counterpart is, which doesn't, so far as I know, have a commonly-accepted categorical name, so let's call it crisis eschatology, because instead of depending on the world getting better and better, through human efforts in cooperation with divine providence, until heaven-on-earth is attained, it presumes that conditions will get steadily worse until some sovereign and cataclysmic act of God shatters every aspect of reality as we know it and God establishes, without any human assistance, the heavenly Jerusalem, where justice, peace, and love prevail.

So, both schemas resolve into the same happy ending, which is something to give thanks for. I'm not going to argue my preference for the more traditional account. That deserves a book-length treatment, which is beyond my ken. And my concern is not so much over the prevalence of realized eschatology among Anglicans as it is over the unconsidered and reflexive character of that prevalence. Crisis eschatology, even though it is abundantly present in our sacred texts, both biblical and liturgical, and in our hymns, is rarely given a fair hearing in the parish hall or the classroom.

And it makes a difference which model motivates us. In realized eschatology, the mission of the Church is to effect God's kingdom. This places a premium on activities that change the structures of society (and the environment), and success is measured in terms of how solid and lasting such changes prove themselves to be. The enlivening vision is one of ongoing incremental positive change, even if it's two steps forward and one step back. In crisis eschatology, the mission of the Church is to announce God's kingdom, which is evangelization, and to model God's kingdom, as a sort of sneak preview of things to come, in the life of the Christian community. This vision provides ample motivation for social outreach--the amelioration of suffering, the preservation of life--but purely as an iconic manifestation of God's love, not in the hope that conditions in the world will get better and better, because, in fact, they are bound to get worse and worse this side of God decisive intervention, which happens only in God's time and in God's way, the details of which are revealed to no human being. In the meantime, the Church's energy is focused on building authentic kingdom-modeling Christian community, and on calling all people everywhere into that community through repentance, faith, baptism, Eucharist, discipleship, and witness.

We continue to argue and struggle over what faithful Christian discipleship and witness looks like in this world. We don't argue much about eschatology. But I wonder sometimes about how much our fights over sex and marriage and, when we have the leisure, mission, are really proxy fights over eschatology. Perhaps we should move the conversation out into the open.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Three Polarities to be Eschewed

The truth is not always in the middle, and I say this even though, as an Anglican Christian, I hold a preferential option for the via media.  Sometimes truth, light, and life are found only at one end of a spectrum. It happens.

But, by my lights, it doesn't happen very often. The more imminent threat to our social and political discourse, whether in the secular or the ecclesiastical arena, or in the territory where the two overlap, is the tendency of too many to set up camp on one end of a contentious polarity and then go about demonizing those who inhabit the other end. The truth may only rarely, and by accident, be precisely in the middle. But it is almost never completely at either end.

Particularly in recent years, this tendency seems to be on overdrive. We tear our hair out over legislative gridlock at national and state levels, but we need look no further than district lines to see where the problem lies. Whichever party controls a state legislature in a year when the tens column turns is able to draw the map to preserve its own hegemony. Both parties do it; there are no clean hands here. The result is that districts tilt heavily in one direction or the other. You have to be an extremist--that is, inhabit one end of the various political polarities--to get elected in most places. So we end up with legislatures, and a Congress, full of hyper-partisan ideologues who are constantly looking for ways to shore up their position in the next election, controlled by fear of what would happen if they lost power. In the meantime, nothing gets done.

The church I serve, the Episcopal Church, has been rent asunder by polarization and the concomitant spirit of fear over the last decade and longer. Most on the conservative end have decamped to other ecclesiastical domains, most of them to the newly-formed Anglican Church in North America. A great many of them still love to trash-talk TEC, however, instead of really moving on. Self-proclaimed progressives control the enterprise now, and there are scarcely enough in the "loyal opposition" (and that, indeed, we are) to make a noise loud enough to get anyone's attention. (There is some solace in powerlessness, but that's another blog post.) Interestingly, though, even while securely in the driver's seat, my "progressive" friends often seem to spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to ferret out crypto-traditionalists and others who might seek to undermine their hard-won gains. There's a lot of fear ... though I'm not sure exactly what of. The polarization is abetted on both ends.

Polarization is no doubt effective in rallying the troops, but it obscures the truth. There are three polarization narratives out there (among many more, I'm sure) that strike me as particularly problematic:

This polarity pits those who look for a Muslim behind anybody who looks vaguely Arab or South Asian and a jihadists terrorist behind every Muslim, against those whose only hermeneutic of Islam is of a peace-loving "Abrahamic" faith. (It is from the latter group that the label "Islamophobia" comes from, directed toward the former group.) At the first end, the scaremongering is frightfully inaccurate and unhelpful, and leads to such things as the massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, which the shooter mistakenly identified with Islam. There is overwhelming incontrovertible evidence that the vast majority of Muslims living in American have no sympathy whatever with acts of politically or religiously-motivated violence against anyone anywhere.

That said, it is naive and dishonest to deny that groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS (or ISIL, depending on how you like to translate Arabic) locate their identity and mission squarely and solely in the teaching and practice of Islam. One can argue that they distort and misconstrue Islam, as many Muslims indeed so argue. But they are not generic terrorists, they are Islamic terrorists. In a society where freedom of thought and expression are valued, it should not be off limits to criticize not only violent acts, but also the avowed motivation of those who commit violent acts--in this case, Islam. Fear mongering and ethnically-based prejudice are reprehensible. I have a small list of Facebook friends who are very close to being blocked for such behavior. But calling into question this or that aspect of Islam is not, necessarily in and of itself, either "hate speech" or bigotry. One need not be either a despiser of Islam or a champion of Islam. Those are not the only options.

This polarity pits those who advocate for inclusion of homosexual behavior and homosexual relationships within the range of "normal" against those who understand sexuality and marriage as innately configured to procreation and the raising of children by their biological parents in a stable family. The activities of Westboro (so-called) Baptist (so-called) Church are only too well-known, and their now-deceased leader, Fred Phelps, was larger than life. To suggest that God "hates" anyone, particularly a whole category of people who share a certain sort of sexual inclination, is absurd and disgusting on its face. Such attitudes need to be condemned loudly and unambiguously. Phelps and all who think and act like him are an embarrassment to all who profess and call themselves Christians.

Equally disturbing, however, is the attempt by some on the "progressive" side to, by rhetorical fiat, eliminate all the territory between their position and that of Westboro Baptist. It's an elegant strategy, really. Stake out the moral high ground by casting (quite successfully, it appears) a narrative that it's all a justice issue on a par with the civil rights struggle of the 1960s and, voila!, anyone who opposes you in any way is automatically a bigot on a par with Bull Connor at the controls of a firehose. Anyone not full-throatedly in support of "marriage equality" is consigned to outer darkness next to those who made Rosa Parks sit in the back of the bus. It's a deft polemical maneuver, and the extent of its success is, frankly, chilling.

It is also complete foolishness. There are any number of rational and defensible positions short of the pole of fully re-defining marriage to include same-sex relationships and still light years away from anything Fred Phelps would have recognized. To not see this is to be willfully obtuse. The ease with which the labels "bigot" and "homophobe" get thrown around and seem to stick should alarm anyone with a sense of decency, let along charity.

"Christian Persecution"
In an attempt to put an edge on the disintegration of Christendom, I have been won't to allude to the statement of the now-retiring Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago, Francis George, to the effect that he expects that he will die peacefully in bed, his successor (now known!) will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square ... all before there is another societal seismic shift, and the Church is restored to a position of leavening influence.

One does not need to scan social media for very long before finding evidence that allegedly points to the "persecution" of Christians--not in the ISIS-controlled parts of the Levant, but right in the heartland of the United States. Valedictorians are forbidden from mentioning Jesus in their speeches, college football teams are prohibited from emblazoning their helmets with crosses in memory of a teammate who died, the evangelical campus ministry Inter-Varsity is "de-recognized" at both public and private universities because they require student leaders of their chapters to actually profess Christian faith, atheist groups sue to have "In God we trust" removed from our national currency ... and the list could go on. Others, usually Christians themselves, off a rejoinder, saying, in effect, "This is not persecution, you wimps! You're just whining because Christianity is no longer privileged like it once was, and now you have to compete in the marketplace of ideas along with everyone else."

Both of these voices are missing something, I fear, in their enthusiasm to make their points. Compared to their brothers and sisters in China and Sudan, to say nothing of Iraq and Syria, American Christians have yet to suffer even a whiff of true persecution. Inconvenience? Yes. About a third of the time, I'm in a hotel room on a Saturday night. In virtually every place, at the breakfast buffet the next morning, I see parents with their children in athletic uniforms, on their way to competitions scheduled for Sunday morning. My heart breaks a little every time I see this. But my achy-breaky heart is nowhere near a persecuted heart. To say otherwise would be to dishonor the Christian children beheaded by Islamic terrorists.

But ... which way is the arc of history presently bending? If I were a betting man, my money would be on Cardinal George. I'm only two years younger than his successor, so that gives me a bit of pause.  From time to time, still, I lay my hands on teenagers in the sacramental rite of Confirmation. In good traditional fashion, I then give them a token symbolic slap on the face, and remind them, when I can, that this is a sign that the vows to which they have just committed themselves are increasingly likely to get them into trouble before they're my age. I don't think I'm wrong, and I pray for them in advance  of that moment, that they will be strong.

If we can resist the allure of these three polarities, at least, we stand a better chance, I think, both as a society and as a church, of knowing the truth, and finding it liberating.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Why I'm Not Going to Taiwan

Every March and every September, the bishops of the Episcopal Church (virtually all the active ones, and a few of the retired ones, at any rate) gather for a regular meeting of the House of Bishops. (The September meeting is dispensed with in General Convention years.) Later this month, the House will convene ... in Taiwan. I will not be there. It seems appropriate to offer an explanation. Indeed, my colleague bishops and the clergy and faithful of the Diocese of Springfield deserve an explanation.

The Episcopal Church has, since 1835, been coterminous with an entity called the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS). Indeed, all Episcopalians are presumed to be members of the DFMS, which is conceptually a very good thing, I would say; the community of the baptized is intrinsically a missionary community. As members of the DFMS, Episcopalians participated in the burgeoning missionary activity from North America and Europe to Africa, Asia, and Latin America in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There were giants and heroes in those days, and some of them now populate our calendar of saints.

As part of this general missionary effort, Episcopalians were among those who introduced Anglican Christianity in China. After the communist takeover of mainland China in 1949, many Chinese Anglicans escaped to Taiwan, and, in 1954, the Diocese of Taiwan was organized, and admitted into union with General Convention the following year, which felt like a logical move, since they already had so many close ties with Americans. So, even though it is almost completely on the other side of the world, the Diocese of Taiwan remains to this day part of the Episcopal Church. We also have dioceses in Central and South America and in the Caribbean, but these are virtually in the shadow of the Mother Ship. There is also a small convocation of Episcopal churches in Europe, which exist for a variety of historical reasons. But Taiwan is by far a geographic outlier.

The Bishop of Taiwan, the Rt Revd David Lai, invited the House to meet in his diocese, and the Presiding Bishop, presumably in consultation with her Council of Advice, accepted the invitation on behalf of the House. We have known about it for at least the last year and a half. I have attended every meeting of the House since March 2011, the very month of my consecration. I have blogged every day of every meeting, right here at this site. (Indeed, I am acutely aware that this post is the first since the spring meeting six months ago; I hope to remedy that pattern!) I enjoy the camaraderie with other bishops. Valuable things happen at those occasions. Nonetheless, after extended thought and prayer, I made a decision not to attend this Fall 2014 meeting. Here's why:

It would not be good stewardship of the financial resources of the Diocese of Springfield. I have no doubt that the Treasurer and the Standing Committee and the Diocesan Council would have accepted the news of my intention to attend this meeting with no detectable degree of pushback. It's not like we're just too poor for me to go. But it would be considerably more expensive than last year's Fall meeting, which was in a hotel near the airport in Nashville, and the one three years ago (2012 was a General Convention year), which was in Quito, Ecuador. While we are not presently an impoverished diocese, neither are we a wealthy one. It would feel inappropriately extravagant for me to requisition checks to cover airfare and lodging for me to spend a week in Taiwan at this point in the life of the diocese.

The optics are bad. The Episcopal Church is flourishing in a handful of demographic/geographic pockets. In most places, we are slowly dying, like California nut trees in the midst of the extended drought. Dioceses are downsizing their staffing. At least three dioceses have part-time bishops. The median age of our communicants continues to creep upward. There is real doubt as to whether we will be able to sustain ministry in rural areas very much longer. Our infrastructure at a churchwide level is likely to be significantly smaller following the next General Convention. And now, against such a backdrop, nearly a hundred bishops (some with spouses, but, in any case, considerably fewer than would normally attend a regular meeting) are jetting off to Asia for a meeting that could have been held much, much less expensively in any number of locations, both domestic and foreign. It just doesn't look good.

It would abet a polemical narrative about the character of the Episcopal Church. "The Episcopal Church," is, in fact, an alias, a shorthand for the more unwieldy Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. The dioceses that originally confederated to form PECUSA were all in areas that were part of the USA. Only a few decades ago, what is now styled the Executive Council was known as the National Council. Despite regular admonitions from certain quarters not to do so, at a local level, Episcopalians still routinely refer to the "national church" in casual parlance. In many of our liturgical forms, we pray regularly for "the President of the United States." Anglicans in other lands are wont to speak of "the American church" when they actually mean TEC. Of course, because Americans once tended to congregate in expatriate enclaves while living in Europe for business or personal reasons, chapels were established in various countries there. Many of those congregations perdure, and are no longer merely serving expatriates, but include many natives of the countries where they are located. Because of our DFMS efforts, we planted churches in Latin America, Haiti, and the Caribbean. The result is that the Episcopal Church is present in some 26 countries (one of which is Taiwan).

This is not the fruit of some grand missionary strategy; it just happened that way. But lately there has been an effort to make political hay out of happenstance. From at least 2006 (I can't remember whether it goes back further), the dais in the House of Deputies at General Convention has been decorated with the flags of all 26 countries where TEC has a presence. In conversation at official levels, the use of the expression "national church" is vociferously discouraged. In the same time frame, the conflict level among (and within) the 39 member provinces of the worldwide Anglican Communion has risen markedly. TEC has found itself increasingly at odds with provinces representing an overwhelming majority of the world's Anglicans. I have no direct knowledge of any conspiracy toward this end, but one cannot help but make speculative inferences from the available information, to the effect that there are those who wish to foster a narrative that TEC is indeed, intrinsically and inherently, an "international" church, with the not-quite-implied but deftly suggested corollary that we are somehow thereby less in need of our relationship with the Anglican Communion, that we have the capacity, if circumstances warrant, to become a rival thereto.

As I have said, I have no idea whether there's someone masterminding the construction of this narrative, but I do know that, whether it's accidental or intentional, I cannot in good conscience assist in propping it up. One of the ways the Taiwan meeting was "sold" to the House of Bishops was that, by gathering there, we would be shining a light on the international character of our church. I nearly made my decision on the matter in that moment. We are an American church. That we have foreign dioceses in our own hemisphere is testimony to the missionary zeal of our forebears, but the final stage of a responsible missionary strategy is always to spin off such churches as they mature into self-sustainability. We have already done so with Mexico and Brazil, for example. Rather than exploiting our Latin American dioceses for purposes of TEC branding, we should be focusing on helping them reach the point where they can form a new autonomous (but interdependent, of course) Anglican province. The number of flags on the dais should not be a point of boasting, but a source a mild embarrassment that we haven't done a better job in bringing the missionary cycle to an organic conclusion.

My feelings about missing the meeting are not unalloyed. While I do not relish trans-Pacific air travel in economy class (having once done Chicago to Tokyo to Bangkok and back all in a middle seat), I'm sure it would be interesting to see the land, the people, and the church in Taiwan. I will very much miss the interaction with my colleagues, especially my Class of 2011 friends. And I'm facing in the direction of paranoia that, just because I'm not there, something crucial to my interests, or the interests of my diocese, will come up, and my voice will not be heard. There are no doubt those who will judge me pejoratively for not being there, or for the reasons here articulated why I am not there. So there are risks in my decision, and my eyes are open about those risks. Perhaps I err. But, as they say nowadays, it is what it is. I do hope those who attend have a good meeting. I will be holding them in my prayers.