Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Looking to the Rock from Which You Were Hewn: Soundings in Revelation & Authority

This is the text of an address I made to a group of clergy leaders in the Diocese of Mississippi yesterday. The gathering, summoned by Bishop Brian Seage, was intentionally inclusive of both positions in the current debates around sexuality and marriage.

It's a joy to be with you this morning. I want to especially thank George Woodliff and Bishop Seage for the invitation. Even though I have a DEPO relationship with Trinity in Yazoo City, and have had a couple of visits there, Mississippi is still pretty exotic territory for this midwestern boy who's lived most of his adult life on the west coast. Although, my mother was raised in Arkansas, and I passed five pretty happy years in south Louisiana, so I'm not completely naive when it comes to the south. 

I'm going to get started by just acknowledging and naming the elephant in the room, pretty much so I can earn the privilege of not talking about it directly. We're here, ultimately, because we as a culture, and we as the Anglican Communion, and we as the Episcopal Church, and you all as the ordained leaders of the Diocese of Mississippi, have developed quite a case of acid reflux over issues of sexuality and marriage. There are transcendently significant and important matters at stake, we all seem to believe—for some, a pretty clear gospel imperative of justice and human dignity; for others, a pretty clear gospel imperative of fidelity to the witness of sacred scripture and the testimony of the generations of Christians that have exercised stewardship of the Good News of Jesus before the baton was handed off to us. Now, as I've said, in my remarks right now, I'm not going to address the issue of sexuality and marriage. However, this is not by any means an effort to "talk around" or otherwise evade a difficult subject, but, rather, to "talk under" it, to dig down to the roots of of our intellectual habits and our theological assumptions, the taproots and wellsprings that eventually inform and shape the various places where we stand, politically and strategically and emotionally and spiritually, in regard to the elephant in the room.

The working title of my talk is Looking to the Rock from Which You Were Hewn: Soundings in Revelation and Authority. The first part, you may realize, comes from Isaiah 51:1 "Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the LORD: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug." My hope is that my reason for choosing that particular snippet of scripture will become self-evident by the time I'm finished.

Please indulge me, first, a small bit of autobiographical detritus, if you will. I do this not to be narcissistic or spiritually exhibitionistic, but simply to be efficient. Telling some of my own story simply seems to quickest way to get to the nugget of what I want to leave you with, to stimulate your thinking with.

I am not a cradle Episcopalian. I was raised in the western suburbs of Chicago, in the figurative shadow of the iconic Wheaton College, in a free-church evangelical environment that had a Baptist accent. It was imprinted on me at a very early age that all doctrine is derived from Scripture, and Scripture alone. If you can't back it up with the Bible, then don't bother even saying it. However, I don't recall ever being offered very much by way of a coherent, disciplined, and consistent hermeneutical eye through which to read the pages of the Bible. Simply by the absence of anything more robust, we were left with a very loose and hyper-individualistic hermeneutical approach. Scripture means pretty much whatever you think it means after praying about it sincerely. It's a good idea to talk to the pastor, or one of the elders, of course, but, bottom line, it's between you and the Holy Spirit.

When it came time to choose a college, I wanted to go to a Christian college that could be called by any name except Wheaton, because, you know, familiarity breeds contempt. So I ended up at what some refer to as "the Wheaton of the west," that is, Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. Westmont was then and remains now in the center of the very tradition in which I was raised, the culture of free-church evangelicalism. Yet, while there, and as an overt result of being there—though I'm not sure it was necessarily by Westmont's design—I encountered something much wider. I encountered Catholicism. I encountered the broad mainstream of historic Christianity. The primary way I discovered Catholicism was by majoring in music and being required to study music history, and, in that context, being required to learn a good bit about the historic western Catholic liturgy. To pass tests, I had to know the meaning of such terms as Kyrie, Credo, Gradual, Motet, Anthem, Agnus Dei, and the like. At first, I was suspicious of it all as, you know, too Catholic. In time, however, the direction of my suspicion was reversed, and I began to see cracks in both the worship and the theology of the tradition in which I had been formed. Now, I also took a required one-semester course in Christian doctrine during my junior year, and, in that course, I was exposed to the debates about Christology and the Trinity in the first four centuries, and to the various councils and creeds that grew out of those debates. Without realizing it, I was developing a biblical hermeneutic that was a little more sophisticated than just “whatever seems good to the Holy Spirit and to me” ... at the moment. 

In the spring of my junior year, I was corresponding—yes, by good old-fashioned snail mail—with a church friend from my high school years who was attending one of the other "not-Wheaton" institutions, a place in Deerfield, Illinois that now goes by Trinity University. I was beginning to share with him some of the journey I was on by way of discovering creeds and liturgy and sacraments and all that good stuff. The subject of the Eucharist came up, and my friend said, in a way that would be utterly natural and predictable given how we were both raised, "I haven't yet thought through my view of communion." My view of communion. Now, I should add, just by way of some context, that, about a year before this exchange of letters, I'd been through a bit of a dark night of the soul. I knew that, as a Christian disciple, it was my duty to be ready to bear witness to Jesus, and to my faith in him, to anyone who asked, at pretty much a moment's notice. But I despaired of ever being able to do so, almost to the point of tears, because I had not "thought through my theology of” … anything! So I felt like I could never be either a credible or an effective witness to the gospel until I was able to write my own multi-volume systematic theology—you know, to channel my inner Thomas Aquinas! And so, here I was, post-crisis, carrying on this correspondence with my friend, and seeing his words "my view of communion," and smacking my head and saying to him—only, actually, just to myself—"What the hell are you thinking?! What does your view of communion have to do with anything?" 

In that moment, I think I realized, at least subconsciously, that I had turned a hugely important corner. I had become a Catholic Christian. It was still three years before I would come under the hands of the Bishop of Los Angeles in Confirmation, but there was no turning back. I realized that I don't have to develop my theology of anything! It is so blessedly not about me that I can exhale and let go of the burden. Why? Because the Church is the steward of Christian doctrine, and my only job is to gratefully receive the Church's doctrine through paradosis—the Greek behind the word "tradition," and evoking the image of a baton being passed from one runner to the next in a relay race. Being a Christian disciple is not about developing my own multi-volume systematic theology. It's about remembering the rock from which I was hewn, the quarry from which I was dug.

So now, moving in the direction wrapping things up for the time beings, I'm going to lay down six markers that I believe flow naturally and consequently from the foundation that I hope I have just laid by means of that little vignette from my young adulthood. 

First, this: For a Christian, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the unavoidable fundamental data point of any and all theological discourse and speculation. One of my favorite quotes is from the Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson, who, in his systematic theology, defines God this way: "God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having first raised Israel from Egypt." Let that sink in for a bit. I suspect it's fairly non-controversial among those in this room, and I don't mean to belabor the obvious. But it underlies what comes next, so I needed to get it out there. Theology—including, ultimately, the theology of marriage—flows from Christology, and Christology begins, not in the pre-existence of the logos, or in the incarnation, or in the teaching or healing ministry of Jesus, or even at the cross, but at the empty tomb, with the phenomenological manifestation of a sovereign, revelatory, act of God, on God's own initiative, in the time and place of God's own choosing.

Second, and therefore, revelation is the "operating system" of all Christian theology. Think with me about the difference between your computer or your smart phone's operating system and the actual applications that you use on your computer or smart phone or tablet. The operating system may not often call attention to itself—in fact, I hope it seldom calls attention to itself (which is why I switched from Windows to Mac!), but if you try to run an app—like check your email or access your calendar or compose a document—and there are kinks in your operating system, you will not have a very happy day. Similarly, you may not think consciously about the details of God's self-disclosure, God's self-revelation, as you try to parse a difficult pastoral or ethical issue. But if you try to do theology outside the context of revelation, the "app" will fail. Human beings do not and cannot intuit or find God. We would know nothing of God's character or how we as human beings fit into the design and meaning of creation apart from God's voluntary and unilateral self-disclosure. We cannot pretend to discern the mind of God or the will of God on any question that might vex us without attending carefully to what God has already disclosed on the subject.

Third, it is the whole Church—the Church Catholic, across not only space but time—that is the steward of God's revelatory self-disclosure. No fragment of a Church that is simultaneously one and divided can trump or bully the other fragments with its own idiosyncratic understanding of what Christians should believe or how Christians should live. We see God's revelation clearly only when we see it together. This revelation that we see together is primarily located in sacred scripture—those documents that ordinands in the Episcopal Church are required to publicly affirm as "the word of God." And I would suggest that the Anglican tradition also holds up and affirms the historic creeds and councils of the undivided church as inescapable touchstones for understanding the revelation of God. At the very minimum, four of these ecumenical councils are on the canonical list, but, as a card-carrying Anglo-Catholic who is the bishop of a biretta-belt diocese, I would be remiss if I did not remind you that the correct answer is actually seven!

My fourth marker (out of six, I will reassure you): The content of revelation must be rearticulated afresh for each generation. Intellectual habits and categories, vocabulary, thought patterns, cultural grammar, poetic sensibilities—all these things change and evolve, and it is the Church's mission-driven responsibility to find new and compelling ways by which to speak of the good news of Jesus and the revelation of God in holy scripture and the sacred tradition of the Church. In doing so, however, we do well to be mindful, and resist the constant subliminal attempts of secular culture to hijack the content of Christian revelation and exploit it for its own purposes. 

Number five, and in close tandem with number four, the content of God's revelation must be embraced afresh by each generation. So, it's the Church's job to always find fresh articulations of revelation for each generation, but it's each generation's responsibility to receive and come under the authority of that revelation. No one has a license to reinvent the Christian narrative, or custom-design it to suit any norms or assumptions that are exterior to Christianity itself. We are stewards of and accountable to God's revelation. As I discovered, to my great relief, as a college student, I don't either have to have or get to have my theology of anything. I receive what the Church hands on to me, which the Church, in turn, has received from God. 

Finally, number six: The Church's stewardship of revelation is exercised in humble and patient communion. St Paul exhorts us, as he writes to the Ephesians, to be eager to maintain "the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." And when he writes to the Corinthians, he gently takes them to task for their impatient and thoughtless behavior toward one another on the occasions of fellowship meals: "When you come together to eat ... wait for one another." This is not easy. Reaching consensus is a much more daunting challenge than orchestrating a simple up-down majority vote. As Americans, we are culturally conditioned to political processes that produce up-down majority votes. That's certainly an efficient way to dispatch with a mountain of pending business, and there's an apparent egalitarian fairness about it. The rules are clear, and the process is relatively transparent. But I'm not sure it's necessarily the most Christian way of going about the Church's business, especially when core elements of the faith are at stake. Rather, we are to wait for one another.

Well, I suspect that this should at least stimulate your thinking and, hopefully, some discussion, so I'll quit here.

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