Monday, April 25, 2005

Arrogance or Grace?

John 14:1-6

1“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. 2In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4You know the way to the place where I am going.”
5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
6Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

In an online discussion group to which I belong, someone posted a message yesterday stating that “orthodox is an arrogant word.” In a sense I know what the person meant, because we have all seen orthodoxy used in an arrogant way—as a club to beat someone who disagrees with us over the head, or as a way of making ourselves out to be better than someone else.

But orthodoxy literally means “right praise” or “right belief.” Without some standard—some way—of knowing what is right belief, how do we know if what we believe is the truth or a lie? Only in matters of religion do we take this view—that it is somehow arrogant to say what is right belief and what is not. Scientists are not free to change the value of Pi or the Law of Gravity depending on how they feel about it. The notion that matters of religion are any different admits a kind of agnosticism: It assumes that we cannot know the truth. Therefore anyone who claims to know the truth is being arrogant.

Sociologists have noted two trends that have increasingly dominated western society since the 1960’s. The first is radical individualism. The second is radical egalitarianism. Radical individualism says that “I am free to believe what I want to believe.” And radical egalitarianism says, “No one else has the authority to tell me any differently.”

By that standard, John 14:6 contains the most arrogant statement in the New Testament: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” My most recent sermon at a conference in the Diocese of Albany a few weeks ago was on a similarly politically incorrect text: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” Acts 4:12). What are we to think about these statements that speak of the uniqueness and exclusivity of the Gospel message?

It is important to note the context of Jesus’ statement: “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Jesus is giving his disciples (and all who believe in Him) this assurance: “I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

To which Thomas responds: Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” And Jesus gives him the only roadmap he will need to enter Jesus’ promised heavenly reward: “I AM the way.”

And, lest we fail by taking our eyes off Jesus and looking to that which cannot save us, he guides us, like the Great Shepherd that he is, and gently points us to the straight path: “No one comes to the Father except through me.”

It is also important to note when this conversation between Jesus and the disciples occurs. (And remember that the original text had no chapter and verse divisions.) Jesus has just predicted that Judas would betray him to death and that before the rooster crowed the next morning, Peter, the chief of the apostles, would deny him three times. Then, with no change—same setting, same conversation—Jesus says: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

When we fail Jesus, betray, and deny him: He says the same to us: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me… I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am, you may be also.”

And when we say, “But Lord, we do not know the way,” He assures us: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This is not the statement of arrogance. This is the statement of God’s true LOVE and GRACE.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Liberal push (continued) and theological worldviews

Finally, my dialogue on the crisis in the Episcopal Church (see previous posts)concluded with this observation that those on both sides of the current issues hold divergent and irreconcilable theological worldviews:

Regarding my characterization of the polarities of radical, feminist and liberation theologies vis a vis historic evangelical and catholic theologies: The central thrust of my argument is that (1) the lesbigay agenda has gone hand in hand with efforts at reimaging God because both proceed from a theological basis that is in stark contrast to historic catholic and evangelical theologies; and that (2)we are finding it impossible to achieve reconciliation or accommodation because our difference is not merely about sexual behavior but because we have different theological worldviews. Feminist and liberation theologies represent one polarity that is in contrast to historic catholic and evangelical theologies, but that is not the only polarity that exists.

When I speak of historic catholic and evangelical theologies, I am speaking of the central stream of Christian though that comes to us through patristic and conciliar efforts at determining Christian doctrine and that continues to be maintained in that stream of theology that is generally regarded as orthodox. Its theological method could be said to be represented by the canon of St. Vincent of Lerins who defined true catholicity as that which has been believed "ubique, semper, et ab omnibus—everywhere, from antiquity, and by all."

The Councils of the early Church arrived at true catholicity by applying this methodology. The Reformers (and their Evangelical successors) were essentially applying this same Vincentian methodology (whether they acknowledged it or not) in stripping away the accretions of medieval Roman dogma to get back to the "faith once delivered to the saints." This is why I have often said that the Reformers (including our Anglican forebears) were not rejecting true catholicity, they were trying to recover it. That is why, even today, there is no disagreement between orthodox Catholic and Evangelical theologians as to the central tenets of Christianity or Christian moral teaching.

While I cited feminist and liberation theologies as one polarity that stands in contrast to this historic, orthodox stream, it would be accurate to say that there is an array of contemporary theologies that do so. Paul Tillich, whom you cite, is regarded by many scholars as being dependent on a philosophical idealism that implied Pantheism and an impersonal deity. He also maintained that myth or symbol is humankind's only way of grasping cognitively the meaning and structure of reality—God, the "Ground of Being." Many who have followed Tillich have applied all of this very subjectively in "re-personalizing" or "re-imaging" God according to their own perceived needs. Others, like Bp. Spong, have gone in a different direction, rejecting personal Theism altogether.)

When you mention that "feminist theologians rejoice in a broad range of images... as the Psalmists, themselves, did similar rejoicing—with many of the same images," the problem is that some of the images are selected "out of context," and used to construct images of God that are markedly different (sometimes to an idolatrous extent) from the picture of God that one gets from the canon of Scripture as a whole.

Finally, let me answer the question that is central to what you are saying: "Can people whose theological understanding comes from a combination of recent Biblical scholarship and the experience of those previously excluded from the church's life co-exist with people who adhere to ancient theologies formed and articulated by old men?" Your question implies that "ancient theologies" are necessarily wrong and that all recent biblical scholarship lines up on your side.

Recent biblical scholarship includes N.T. Wright, Luke Timothy Johnson, Richard Hays, Edith Humphrey, Christopher Seitz, Marianne Meye Thompson, and Raymond Brown; not just Marcus Borg and the other members of the Jesus Seminar. Recent theological scholarship includes Alistair McGrath, John Webster, Tom Oden, and Colin Gunton; not just Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Rosemary Ruether and Carter Heyward.

(Incidentally, Gunton's 1992 Oxford Bampton lectures, published as The One, The Three And The Many: God, Creation And The Culture Of Modernity, deals quite powerfully with the root causes of our theological divide to which I am referring.) There is lively and active scholarship going on in evangelical and Catholic circles (as documented in Tom Oden's Rebirth of Orthodoxy, HarperCollins, 2003), so it simply won't do to pretend that all modern scholarship supports the theological and moral revisions we are witnessing.

When you put the question the way you do—that the historic Christian faith is "ancient theologies formed and articulated by old men," it helps to demonstrate quite clearly that what is going on in the Episcopal Church today is the outright rejection of Christian orthodoxy—and that, I fear, is the chief aspect of the irreconcilable differences we are facing.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

The Liberal push (continued)

My liberal correspondent (see message, dated April 14, 2005) responded to my citation of the Lambeth Conference of 1998, which in Resolution 1.10, "reject[ed] homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture" by saying "Integrity (the Episcopal Church's homosexual lobby) has worked for years to change the biblical interpretation of the scriptures used to discriminate against homosexuals." This effort at changing the interpretation of Scripture is at the root of our disagreement--which is a major disagreement because it is a divergence of theological worldviews.

By the way, Louie Crew (the founder of Integrity) does a fine job of documenting the push I am talking about in his article "Changing the Church." In the very first sentence of the article, Louie touches on the real heart of the matter dividing Anglicans from each other when he mentions that "women and lesbigays have organized to promote a more egalitarian and inclusive spirituality." Now egalitarian and inclusive are fine words; but what they stand for in this case is a spirituality that includes the efforts at changing the interpretation of Scripture, and it also includes the various efforts aimed at "reimaging God," which goes hand in hand with the effort to legitimize same sex relationships as a part of radical, feminist and liberation theologies. Here I am using "radical," not pejoratively, but in its literal sense of "at the root." Those who embrace these theologies are bent on redefining Christianity at the root.

The issue is not merely one of sex or sexual behavior or expression. The issues of sexuality only serve as occasions for discovering how deep our theological differences really are. Another contributor to this list made the point quite well in her message with the subject, 'the myth of common prayer' (March 14, 2005) when she says: "Not only do we have different ways of interpreting scripture, here's the truth of it, straight away: We do not worship the same images of God." She hits it right on the head: Lex orandi, lex credendi--the law of prayer is the law of belief. We pray differently and so we believe differently. Just wait until we try to draft a new Prayer Book, and all this will become painfully apparent.

So the question is not whether Anglicans who are divided on issues of sexuality can achieve reconciliation or accommodate each other. It is whether people who pray to different images of God can co-exist in the same Church. Can people whose theological understanding comes from radical feminist and liberation theologies co-exist with people who adhere to historic evangelical and catholic theologies?

Finally, you ask the crucial question: " this issue big enough to destroy the Episcopal Church?" I think that is a question history is going to have to answer. I certainly don't advocate the destruction of the Episcopal Church, but I also don't see any way of reconciling two such disparate theological worldviews. The solution, if it is not to involve theological compromise, will have to involve political compromise, such as, but not limited to: (1) allowing the rest of the Communion to adjudicate which position they recognize as "Anglican," (2) some sort of amicable divorce that respects both sides enough to include division of the property, pension fund, trust funds, and other assets, or (3) a form of alternative episcopal oversight that is deemed adequate by those who are requesting it and not merely by those who are allowing it (or, more to the point, NOT allowing it). And here I think Bishop Duncan is to be commended. If those on the liberal side had been as generous as Bishop Duncan has been in allowing DEPO (Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight—alternative bishops for congregations in crisis), we wouldn't be watching the disintegration that is happening in many places.

One thing on which we all agree: Pray for the Church!

Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Liberal push and the Crisis in the Episcopal Church

From a recent exchange on a listserv discussing the present crisis in the Episcopal Church, a liberal critic of those who are upholding the historic Christian position wrote:

"The liberal side has been willing for years to live in disagreement which is a sort of compromise. Now when a single vote goes against the conservatives they go crying to the conservatives in the Anglican Communion to try and get their own way rather than to continue to live in disagreement."

Actually, the liberal side has been undermining and trying by every possible means to change the teaching of the Church for many years. Concerning ordination of homosexually active persons, the 1979 General Convention resolved that ordination of homosexuals was "not appropriate." Nevertheless, it was already occurring in a lawless fashion, seen perhaps most conspicuously in Bp. Paul Moore's ordination of Ellen Barrett in 1977. Twenty bishops (and, later 19 others) signed an opposition statement to the action of General Convention, saying that "we cannot accept these recommendations or implement them in our diocese insofar as they relate or give unqualified expression to Recommendation Three [forbidding ordination of lesbians and gays]." Consequently, Integrity could later claim that at least 50 open gays and lesbians had been ordained to the priesthood by 1991.

The Lambeth Conference of 1998, Resolution 1.10 "reject[ed] homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture" and stated that "[This conference] cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions." Yet the ECUSA continued undeterred.

My liberal correspondent then continued:

"And is it such a huge issue to have one openly gay bishop?"

To the extent that it signifies rejection of a nearly 2000 year old understanding of Christian sexual morality, yes, it is a huge issue.

But my liberal friend continues:

"I believe it is the conservatives that are out to destroy the church and nothing you can say will make me think other wise. They have made no constructive offers and have reject[ed] every attempt by the liberals to accommodate them."

Can anyone help me understand what this fellow means by "rejecting every attempt by the liberals to accommodate them?" I haven't seen attempts by the liberals at accommodation, just a relentless push in one direction.

Episcopal bishops, at their latest meeting, agreed not to give consents to any new bishops until GC 2006, nor to authorize any public rites for the blessing of same sex unions, nor to bless any such unions, at least until the General Convention of 2006. Nevertheless, some bishops since then have said they cannot direct clergy in their dioceses to refrain from blessing same sex unions. So the bishops will quit; but their clergy, who are far more likely to perform such services anyway, can go right ahead. The push continues.

Couple all of this with refusals of DEPO [providing alternative oversight to congregations that are in conflict with their bishops over these issues] and inhibition and deposition (i.e, defrocking) of clergy, which conveniently does not require a trial, for "abandonment of the Communion of this Church"--when the clergy in question had no intention of going anywhere else--and you begin to get a picture of why conservatives don't believe anything has been done to effect reconciliation or to accommodate them. (See, in particular, the website of the six orthodox Episcopal priests in Connecticut who are being persecuted by their bishop. If anyone can point out this grand effort at reconciliation or accommodation of conservatives, I'd be glad to hear about it.