Renewing the Festive Center

Peter Leithart, in Against Christianity, writes:

Modernity is a revolt against ritual, and the modern city is an unprecedented attempt to form a civic community without a festive center. (p 79)

As Peter Leithart argues in this book, the church and her liturgical worship are the true festive center of human life, activity, and culture. In addition to countless other things we could say about the church’s liturgy, this fact of church-as-festive-center is why we worship with wine in the Eucharist.

What are some practical steps that leaders in the church can take to renew this center of festivity to our lives?

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John Calvin: Anti-ritual?

Peter Leithart, in Against Christianity (p 89), writes

… Calvin was fatally wrong in suggesting that [the Roman Church’s] Galatianism was found wherever there is an emphasis on ritual per se. Calvin notwithstanding, the redemptive-historical move that the New Testament announces is not from ritual to non-ritual, from an Old Covenant economy of signs to a New Covenant economy beyond signs. The movement instead is from rituals and signs of distance and exclusion (the temple veil, cutting of the flesh, sacrificial smoke ascending to heaven, laws of cleanliness) to signs and rituals of inclusion and incorporation (the rent veil, the common baptismal bath, the common meal)…. Rituals are as essential to the New Covenant order as to the Old; they are simply different rituals.

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Curate Camp & “Postmodernism”

I am encouraged by what I experienced this last Thursday and Friday at our monthly diocesan gathering of curates. One of my new curate friends was telling me that I should read some contemporary author on politics and natural rights theory, and while doing this I could tell that he had a very negative view of “postmodernism.” As I heard him talk, I asked if he was influenced by Francis Schaeffer, and sure enough, he is a big fan.

This is the same basic conversation I have been having for almost 15 years now, so I thought I would just state what I mean by “postmodernism.”

What I mean by it is simply antifoundationalism. It is basically the admission that the modern followers of Neitzche, including Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard, have successfully put forth a genealogical critique of modern (and therefore, secular) ethics, showing it to be grounded not in some ontological reality but rather in various versions of a will-to-power. This move is known as a hermeneutic of suspicion.

Now,  “good postmodernists” both agree with these post-Neitzcheans, and disagree with them. They agree that there is value in genealogy as a way to see where so many of the conditions of our time which seem to us as “self-evident truths” actually came from, but they disagree that this history is just a chain of arbitrary transitions. Rather history is a story of “constant, contingent shifts either toward or away from … the true human telos.” (Theology and Social Theory 279)

The good postmodernists agree in the validity of an ontology of difference, but this difference is not necessarily violent, not “equivocal at variance,” but rather rooted, ultimately, in the difference within the Trinity and therefore within humanity (as image of God). This difference, then, is, at its truest level, a harmonious difference.

These two presuppositions of secular postmodernism (genealogical historicism and an ontology of difference), therefore are embraced and modified by us “good postmodernists.” The third premise of secular postmodernism, which flows from the other two, and is utterly rejected by Christian theology, is ethical nihilism. This premise is more complicated, since almost none of the contemporary or recent neo-Nietzcheans actually embrace this nihilism. Actually, they sneak in, through the back door, an ahistorical Kantian self whose freedom must then be protected by someone … someone, that is, with power. Thus, for these neo-Nietzcheans, “the protection of the equality of freedom … collapses into the promotion of an inequality of power.” (Theology and Social Theory, 279)

By the way, there are planty of foundationalists in the Episcopal Church, but there are a whole, whole lot more in the PCA.

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Wright’s Version of the Jesus Prayer

Bishop Tom Wright’s expansion of the Jesus Prayer:

“Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, set up your kingdom in our midst.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon us sinners.

Holy Spirit, breath of God, renew us and all the world. Amen.

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Ancient Interpretation: Reno on Origen’s “Inconclusiveness’

Rusty Reno, in Christian Theologies of Scripture, gives an overview of Origen’s “doctrine of Scripture,” that is to say, Origen’s spiritual interpretation of Scripture (trained as he was at Alexandria).

Reno argues that biblical interpretation, for Origen, is preparatory. Its goal is to enable us to “see Christ” in new ways. (As I have written about here, this language of “seeing” is really talking about a kind of intellectual apprehension, the intellectus fidei, which is essential to the beatific vision, the traditional goal of the Christian life.) Interpretation “cannot bring us to the destination in the same way that a syllogism can bring us to a conclusion.” (28)

This is why Origen’s interpretation, later developed into the reading practice of lectio divina,  never offers the same kind of fixed conclusions as modern interpretaton does, and this is also why Origen can seem to modern readers to be inconclusive and open-ended. (My inner fundamentalist often objects that this kind of “open-endedness” is soft headed and “liberal.” Yet, one cannot possibly argue that Origen was “liberal.” That category simply does not apply.)

To quote Reno,

Because Origen’s understanding of biblical exegesis entails a movement toward contemplation of the divine intention which has so disposed all things, his approach – and indeed all of the patristic tradition – will always strike us as ‘out of control.’ Modern biblical interpretation is not based on the hypothesis that all things are fulfilled in Christ. We do not believe that believe that God disposes all things in a single divine economy. Instead, we want to build a structure of written characters which can receive the truth of our preferred worldly economies: the economy of ancient Isrealite religion, the economy of ‘what really happened,’ the economy of concepts that float around in the minds of ancient authors or redactors, or, if we are of a postmodern bent, of the minds of the readers of Scripture. In all these ways, we tend to fasten down scriptural texts. We plot the Scriptures onto something more stable, more manageable than the world  of signs, and the last thing we want to do is to step away from solid ground. This is the hermeneutical strategy of putting scriptural texts into their historical contexts. Or we contextualize Scripture by translating it into an idiom of systematic theology. Either way, we move out of the semantic flux of scriptural words and into a limited economy in which conclusions might be drawn and our minds might come to rest. (29)

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Pentecostal Heterogeneity

Joel Green writes in this Festschrift to Richard Hays about the event of Pentecost in Acts 2:

“I will urge that Luke’s account constitutes a profoundly theological and political statement displacing Babel – and Jerusalem – and Rome centered versions of a unified world in favor of an altogether different sort of community. Unity is found at Pentecost, but not by reviving a pre-Babel homogeneity. With the outpouring of the Spirit, koinonia is possible not by the dissolution of multiple languages but rather by embodiment in a people generated by the Spirit, gathered in the name of Jesus Christ.” (pg. 199)

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Clarification: Where I’m at on Same Sex Issues

I just saw a really thought provoking (though not “perfect”) documentary which winsomely tells Gene Robinson’s story called “The Bible told me so.” Recently a friend “came out of the closet” with me in a private conversation. The Episcopal Church General Convention did its thing a week or so ago, with the rest of the communion beginning to respond. There are people of same-sex orientation both at my former home parish (some of whom are extremely close friends), as well as at the church were I am currently serving as Assistant to the Rector. I have dear friends (including my parents) at The Falls Church in Northern Virginia, a parish which left their Episcopal bishop over issues related to this. Many others I know are struggling with this complex set of issues. So, I thought it might be time for me once again to clarify “where I am” on all of this (including to myself).

My own interpretation of Scripture, in light of tradition and reason, is pretty much the same as that of Richard B. Hays at Duke Divinity School. This is my “default view,” and I have blogged extensively about it here.

This position is quite traditional on the broad spectrum of things.

As important as the role of my own interpretation Scripture is in all of this, however, I am motivated more by ecclesiology (which, of course, ultimately comes from Scripture via tradition and reason). To go down the revisionist road on same sex issues would violate the trust of our African bishops in the Anglican Communion. It would trample on the catholicity of the church.

You might ask, What about the homosexual persons right here in our own backyard? We must minister to them and embrace them and challenge them with the Gospel. I often find myself quoting Tim Keller who responds to the question “If I become a Christian will Jesus tinker with my lifestyle?” by saying, “To be a Christian, you must make Jesus the reason you get out of bed in the morning.” The Gospel runs deep, deeper than anything else in this world.

I think that is much of what is going on here. In Romans 2:1, St. Paul basically looks at the Judaizing types and says “You religious types who are accostomed to judging others from a distance are condemned because you do the same things.” Wow. I am a “religious type.” And Paul is correct: I do the same things. Am I totally pure sexually? How can I judge others?

Rather than judge, I am totally convinced of the need to listen. I am a big believer in the listening process which was proposed by recent Anglican Instruments of Communion over the last few years, a process which, depressingly, seems not to be “working.” And yet, being in listening relationships of trust with homosexual persons has done more to help me in all of this than anything else in the last couple of years. Such relationships do not make the issues go away, but they do recast them dramatically.

Hey, I might be wrong in terms of my own interpretation of Scripture. I hope that I am wrong. I want to be wrong on this one, just like I hope that all people are ultimately, somehow saved (even though I cannot see how that can be squared with Scripture).

I am grateful to have a bishop who is committed to the Windsor Process, and to the Covenant as a way of deepening the unity among our bishops and provinces globally. I am grateful that our bishop’s close relationship to the Archbishop of Southern Malawi (where our diocese works to dig and construct clean water wells for the poorest of the world’s poor) is one of the factors which compelled him to vote as he did recently at General Convention. That is exactly how things should be; that it what “communion” means.

All of the above comments apply to the Church. When it comes, however, to how to think about homosexuality out in the secular world, in terms of “the culture wars,” I inisist on the importance of thinking about this theologically.

The church is its own body politic and we are in a cultural moment in which the nation state wants to privatize the church and discipline the populace (including the body of Christ) through violence. This is the deep heresy which causes much of our confusion about homosexuality. This heresy must be resisted.

In fact, I have more in common with someone (such as ++Rowan Williams) who identifies and fights against this deep heresy but who has (or has had) revisionist tendencies on this particular sub-issue  than I do with someone (such as almost all conservative evangelicals, including almost all of the people in the PCA as well as in CANA) who is oblivious to this heresy which is ripping our culture apart at the deepest levels, but who holds an “orthodox view” on the particular issue of same-sex erotic behavior.

The main thing for the church to focus on is not “the culture wars” but rather the discipline of our own members such that true virtue is cultivated for the common good, as leaven in a loaf of bread. This has nothing to do with violence, except insofar as violence is something to be resisted and repudiated.

More than anything, we must hear and heed Bishop Wright’s call to pray:

I have said many times that, for all those involved in this whole messy situation, the main priority at the moment is prayer. That remains my conviction and my plea. Prayer for the church; for our beloved Communion and the many other Christians with whom we seek to deepen fellowship; for Archbishop Rowan; for wisdom, courage, clarity and vision; for God’s glory, the extension of his kingdom, and the power of the gospel and the Spirit at work in hearts, lives, communities and throughout our world.

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