Nihilism & Theology (D. Bentley Hart)
“So much of what we imagine to be the testimony of reason or the clear and unequivocal evidence of our senses is really only an interpretive reflex, determined by mental habits impressed in us by an intellectual and cultural history.” — David Bentley Hart, _The Reason for God_, 293.
 
So true. This is what I am constantly trying to get my undergraduate students to see. Before they can even be open to theology and religion (Christian or otherwise), they first must question their “ordinary” modes modes of understanding. They must first become skeptics. They must first become nihilists.
This is why Socrates was such a gadly, attempting to “corrupt the youth,” to get the young, future politicians of Athens to question authority, to question their assumptions, to question to the status quo.
 
This is why John Milbank says that “theology is a hair’s breadth from nihilism.”
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Lent: Commending the (Anglican) Faith

One part of my Christian journey which I have not spoken of very much ocurred as my tenure as an evangelical Presbyterian minister was drawing to a close. As much as I loved and still love that tradition, I knew that I needed to make a change. Why? Because with every fiber of my being I longed for a church which was more mysterious, more beautiful, more sacramental.

And so it is that, over a period of about a year, I had lunch with a priest in the Orthodox Church (a former Methodist minister). During that time I was exploring this ancient way of faith, which is so different from the church I grew up in, so different (you might say), from “your grandma’s church,” that it is barely recognizable.

To put it a different way, when you worship in an Orthodox church, it is almost like you are on another planet, in a different reality, in a different dimension. The worship is just so utterly foreign. From the perspective of a native Texan who grew up Baptist, it seems more like Hinduism than it does like “First Baptist.”

Therein lay its attraction. As the church in American & in the West continues its free fall of decline, I firmly believe that what people crave and long for is mystery. Something different from their normal, everyday experience. (Hence the sadness and pitifulness of the efforts of some churches to make their worship “relevant for modern people.” Yuck!) This is why so many people in western culture, for the last few decades now, have been flocking to Eastern religions, and even the popularity of yoga fits into this trend. Sadly, so many folks nowadays are totally ignorant of the historical rootedness, within Christianity, of “eastern” practices such as contemplation and mysticism.

Even though I ultimately opted for Anglicanism over Orthodoxy, these instincts have stayed with me, and this is where the liturgical and sacramental life of the church is such a gift for people today.

Nowhere is this more true or pertinent than in the liturgical seasons of the church year, and in particular during Lent. And this brings me to the main point of this Crucifer article: what a joy it is to witness the epiphanies which occur when “newcomers” discover our sacramental and liturgical life. When they discover it, begin to practice it, and go deeper into it. (The desire to see more of this kind of discovery is why we themed our college ministry, several years ago, “A New Way of Being Christian that is Very, Very Old.”)

Thanks be to God that dozens of individuals and families, right now, are coming to experience and appreciate and love the practice of Lent, that so many new folks attended our Ash Wednesday services this year, that over 30 adults at Christ Church South have expressed interest in Confirmation Preparation in the Fall, etc.

It is a joy to commend the Anglican Way to a culture which simply does not know. I remain convinced, today more than ever, that what our fragmenting culture needs, at the deepest level, is a connection to Jesus Christ which is stable, grounded, beautiful, communal, sacramental, and mysterious.

“A new way of being Christian that is very, very old!”

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Funky Eastertide: What Goes Down Must Come Up

The window of time between Ascension and Pentecost (about a 10 day period) is interesting. I call it “Funky Eastertide.” Christ has ascended, but the Holy Spirit has not yet descended. What is the meaning of Easter during this time?

Many people are familiar with the saying “What goes up must come down.”

Fewer, however, have deeply meditated on the upward & downward motion which pervades the Christian narrative. For example, only after Christ is “lifted up” on the cross is he then is he lowered down into the depths of the earth, into Hades or Sheol, which many interpret as a kind of descent into Hell. And then, three days later, he is up again, risen victorious, for his disciples and (according to 1 Corinthians 15) a great multitude of 500 to see.

Now I am not one of those Episcopalians who thimks think that Eastern religions such as Buddhism are something we Christians should emulate. However, it does seem to me that this “down – up” pattern of the death and resurrection of Christ constitutes two halves of a larger whole, kind of like the pattern of the yin and yang. They are stitched together, metaphysically, so to speak. You can’t have one without the other. They infuse and saturate each other with meaning.

This down – up pattern has been given the name of “Paschal Mystery” by the Church: what goes down must come up. And what comes up must first have gone down. Without death there is no resurrection life. Without the dark night there can be no sunrise. Without pruning no beautiful rose blossoms.

But as we think about the feasts Ascension and Pentecost, it seems to me that there is something of a “yin-yang” pattern here, as well. Another “up – down” reality which is worthy of contemplation. In the Ascension Christ ascended up into the heavens and vanished from our view. Why did he do this? Why did he go up?

In John 16:7 Jesus tells his disciples, “Unless I go away the Paraclete will not come to you.” Unless he leaves, that is, the Holy Spirit will not be poured down upon all flesh. In a similar vein in John’s resurrection story when Mary Magdalene tries to hold on to her risen Lord, he rebukes her saying, “Do not hold onto me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father” (John 20:17). It is as if he is saying, “Mary, don’t try to tie me down; I must go up. It is good for you and for the world that I go up. Only if I go up, can something even better come down.”

We who benefit from the entirety of the Christian canon realize that this “something better” is the gift of the Holy Spirit, poured down onto the Church on the Day of Pentecost. This Spirit, St. Paul tells us, is “the Spirit of the Lord” himself (2 Cor 3:17) and the Book of Acts speaks of the Holy Spirit as “The Spirit of the Lord.” That is, when the Spirit descended onto the Church, it was also Christ himself descending onto the Church, coming down and entering our hearts in a fresh, new, powerful way.

Without the downward descent of Good Friday, there can be no victorious burst of Easter resurrection. Without the upward vanishing of Ascension, there can be no downward outpouring of the Spirit of Life.

So here’s a “homework assignment.” The next time you are at church, look for this “up down” imagery in the liturgy. How many times in the Liturgy are things of various kinds elevated and or brought down?

Everything from the Sursum Corda (“Lift up your hearts / we lift them up unto the Lord”) to the manual actions of the Presider at the Table (notice how many times things are elevated or raised) contributes to this pattern in our lives. Look for it. Study it. It is worthy of contemplation.

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“Pass[ing] Understanding:” Liturgy, Thomas, & Van Til’s Oversimplification

“And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God….”

These words constitute (along with others) the “final blessing” or “benediction” at the end of the Holy Eucharist, both Rites I & II, from the 1979 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

For years I have pondered the claim of Cornelius Van Til, not just that human reason is “fallen,” that is, debilitated in some way as a result of the Fall of Humanity, but that medieval thinkers, and St. Thomas Aquinas in particular, erroneously hold that human reason, after the fall, remains in its pristine, pre-lapsarian state, and is thus not fallen.

(Not sure if there are sill any serious “vantillians” out there nowadays, but still….)

At the end of a service of Holy Eucharist a few months ago, while con-celebrating with a fellow presbyter at my home parish, I believe that I had an insight into why Van Til is basically wrong. Further, I think that this “case study” is a good example of a deeper problem which characterizes the thought of many conservative evangelicals, even those who are relatively rigorous academically.

Here’s how it happened. My fellow priest who was celebrating on this particular occasion a few weeks ago, inserted the word “human” into the final benediction of the liturgy: “… the peace of God which passeth all human understanding, keep your heart….” [italics mine] This “spontaneous” insertion into the liturgy caught my attention, not merely because I generally regard such insertions as unnecessary, superfluous, and pernicious (participating as they do in the modern enlightenment Romantic tendency toward “expressive individualism”), but also just because it was not clear to me that it was accurate.

That is, it was not at all clear to me that, in fact, the “peace of God” here passes some understanding that is specifically and distinctively human.

Now, of course, I “get” the intention of the celebrant. (And, in the spirit of full disclosure I myself “experimented” with this spontaneous emendation a couple of times myself.) His point was that, surely, nothing can possibly surpass the understanding of God.

But it is precisely here that the folly of such expressive individualism lies, for according to the tradition — as seen, for example, in Plato and St. Thomas — there is no understanding that is not human.  That is, there is no such thing as a “divine understanding.”

Understanding, in short, is a human thing. Only humans (that is, rational animals) know by that discursive process called “understanding.” For Plato (as seen in the penultimate segment of his “line” image in Book VI of the Republic the term here is dianoia (“knowing through”), while for Thomas in the Summa Theologiae it is ratio. For Thomas, God (as well as angels) does not know by “rationization” … he knows things directly, through the simplicity of God’s divine self (which is to say, not through anything at all).

OK, back to Van Til. Van Til says that for Thomas “reason is not fallen.” But this is a horrible oversimplification, for it fails to distinguish between the kind of knowing that humans (characteristically) “do” and the kind of knowing that God “does.” What humans do is dianoia / ratio; what God (and angels … and perhaps exceptional cases in which humans achieve a kind of unmediated knowledge, such as perhaps what St. Augustine reports in Bk VII of the Confessions) does is noesisintellectus.

Does the peace of God pass all understanding? Yes, because only humans “do” understanding; God does not. Hence, the qualification of “human” inserted into “the peace of God which passeth understanding” is not just superfluous but a kind of category mistake.

Does Thomas think that “reason” is fallen? Contra Van Til, yes he does: dianoia / ratio, as a human activity or faculty, is impaired by man’s sin and the fall. However, noesis / intellectus is not fallen, and it might just be possible that maybe just maybe human beings can participate in this divine activity, by grace.

Be that as it may, while the peace of God surely does surpass ratio (which is by definition human), there is no way it could possibly surpass intellectus (which is by definition divine and / or angelic).

 

 

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Bringing the Church to the World (Stations of the Cross)

Several years ago when I was on the church staff of a vibrant and growing Presbyterian church in Austin, I had the opportunity to join a small group in studying a powerful and thought-provoking book called Bringing the Church to the World. The author of this work, one of our most beloved and respected theologians / ministers / spiritual leaders, is the Anglican Bishop-scholar N.T. Wright.

The title of the book says it all. Wright’s vision for the Kingdom of God and its expansion is limited neither to a movement of solitary individuals who have a “personal relationship with Jesus,” nor to a political agenda for secular justice, but instead it has everything to do with a new kind of community. A community where justice and mercy are real. A community where broken sinners sacrificially serve one another out of love. A community that is ordered according to a biblical pattern. A community gathered under the Word-based Gospel of grace, centered on the ritual body and blood of Christ.

For more than a decade now, this has been my vision, too. I have started calling it the “bread-and-wine-community.” I believe that you, reader, are called to “do life” with your “bread-and-wine-community,” the one you gather with (and as) on Sunday, the Day of Resurrection, the first day of the week. These are the people whom, first and foremost, you live with, suffer with, serve with, and love with.

This is why Robert Finney, yet again, “made my day” the other day when he stormed into our office with a slightly frazzled facial expression that screamed, “Oh no … what have I just gotten myself into!?”

He proceeded to tell me about the leadership network meeting of Christian campus ministers he had attended earlier that day, where plans were made for to reach out to the university community at U.T. Tyler for Easter and Holy Week (to the extent that these evangelicals, bless their hearts, know what Holy Week is). The other campus ministers quickly made plans to share the gospel message with strangers by various means including the distribution of “Gospel tracts” which encourage people to make a decision for Christ, to give their lives to Christ.

Now I believe in evangelism. I have done street preaching (more than once) on college campuses, including here in Tyler. No question, God can use and has used tracts given to strangers (even outside the context of relationship) to bring new life.

And yet, Robert sensed the need for something deeper. Something more rooted in the ancient ways of the people of God. Something which fits out College Community motto: “a new way of being Christian that is very, very old.”

And so he volunteered to organize a Stations of the Cross exhibit on campus during Holy Week. This “makes my day” for all sorts of reasons. Not only is this practice rooted in the history and beauty – have you seen the icons which Christ Church uses for the Stations? – of the catholic church, but it “brings the church to the world.”  It takes a practice not of some individual but of the church and it invites people in. It allows people to “belong before they believe,” to “taste and see” that the Lord is good.

Please keep Robert, me, and our Epiphany college community in your prayers this season as we bring the church to the world, and invite people into a new way of being Christian that is very, very old.

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Sins I’m Giving Up for Lent: None

I recently did a “thought experiment” on my Facebook page.  I asked the question (to my 1000+ “friends”), “What sins are you giving up for Lent?” In parentheses I added the qualification, “trick question.”

I really did not think that many people would “fall for it,” or “take the bate.” Frankly, I thought that folks would (rightly) object to such a public display of a personal, spiritual matter.

Now I won’t list for you the various answers, but suffice to say that folks chimed right in with a battery of sins, some of which you could guess.

Think with me, however, about the trials which Jesus experienced in that dessert of temptation in Matthew 4. Jesus was offered three things by the Tempter: bread, power, and health. My question for you is: are these things sinful; are these things sins?

No! These are good things! And it’s the very same for you & me this Lenten season. The things you are giving up: chocolate, beer, coffee, whatever … these are not bad things. They are not sins.

We are not called to give up sinful things for Lent; we are called to give up sinful things all the time, every day.  During Lent, what we are called to “say no” to is good things: chocolate, beer, bread, power, health. But the question remains, “Why?” Why should we say “no” to these things if they are so good?

And the answer is the same for us as it was for Jesus. God wants us to have all of these things in abundance: chocolate, beer, bread, power, health … but he wants to give them to us as gifts, not as things grasped. And so you see, we’re not actually saying “no” to them; we are saying “not yet.”

See, all of these things being offered  to Jesus by Satan … in each case, the “carrot” being dangled before Jesus was something which was already his by God’s promise.

When the devil offers bread to the famished Jesus, imagine what was running through Jesus’ mind. “Hmmm … what would a kingdom based on feeding miracles look like? A ministry of providing bread out of nothing could blaze a trail right to the king’s throne, with throngs of followers supporting me. Then I could finally restore the fortunes of Israel and God’s people.” See, Satan was offering Jesus a shortcut to the Kingdom. But Jesus said “no.” By faith & the HS – the very same resources you & I have, by the way – Jesus determined not to grasp his kingship, but to wait for it as a gift.

Jesus understood “the logic of the gift” — that God was always going to give him the bread, the power, the health anyway … so why grasp after it? Why do what Adam did in the garden? Better to have a little patience and humility now, and then receive all good things as a free gift from the giver of all good things.

By saying no to chocolate (or whatever) in Lent I am not really saying no to chocolate. I am saying “not now” to chocolate. And by saying “not now” to chocolate, I am saying “yes” to God, and I am waiting on his good gifts.

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Anglican (Episcopal) Approach to Scripture

For years now I’ve been fairly obsessed with this issue of how Episcopalians regard Holy Scripture, especially in contrast to more standard evangelical views, patterns, and assumptions.

In fact a few years ago I posted a series of blog articles on this topic beginning here.

More recently, however, I have uploaded a youtube video (actually it is a series, since I “messed up” in the first video, and lack the necessary editing skills to correct the error … hence the additional video) which describes the Anglican approach to Scripture as liturgical, and hence viewed from the following four perspectives:

1. Community

2. Story

3. Context

4. Sacrament.

You can find the videos here, here, and here.

 

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Pope’s Footwashing & Nonidentical Repetition

Radical Orthodoxy sees the transmission of Christian tradition in terms of “non-identical repetition.” In The Word Made Strange (p 64) John Milbank speaks of “repetition with variety” (borrowed from the 18th century Bishop Lowth, who, against that other bishop, Warburton, argued for the primacy of speech over writing in the origins of language) in which a poet repeats the same poetic lines he has received, learned, and memorized from his predecessor bards … but with a “twist,” with a difference.

Even as the same lines are repeated, the poet adds a different emphasis, pairs a phrase with a novel facial expression, or  stresses different syllables of particular words differently than did his antecedent poet.

In this way the original poem, and mutatis mutandis the poem at every stage in the catena, is “pleonastic:” it contains within it the potential for an infinite variety of performances.

In his essay “A Christological Poetics” Milbank speaks of Christ as not only the sum total of the signifying chain or web of Hebrew theology poetically imagined in the Old Testament, but also as occupying a certain place, indeed an “originating place” (Michel de Certeau uses the phrase “inaugurating rupture”) in the chain.

So “on the night before he was betrayed” Jesus Christ performs and repeats the story of the passing over in Egypt but in a radically new way. This inaugurating rupture includes the  command to love one another along with the embodied example of washing his disciples’ feet, a performance which the church has been performing and re-membering for two millenia.

And so it is that when Pope Francis recently washed the feet of a Muslim female prisoner in the context of the Maundy Thursday Rites, he was performing the poem in a radically new way. Who knew that the pleonasm of Christ’s poesis on the night before he was betrayed would include this meaning? And who knows what potential meanings are yet still to come?

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Theories of Language: Derrida on Aristotle

Warning: this is a quite theoretical article, which many of my non-academic friends might find tedious!

In the first chapter of Of Grammatology, Derrida accuses Aristotle of launching the “metaphysics of presence” by positing a theory of language which Derrida thinks is critiqued and “shown up” by Sausurre’s theory of the sign. He cites Aristotle’s articulation in On Interpretation in which he says that even though language (speech and writing) is a matter of custom, the ideas of objects which people have in their minds are universal (and thus transparent to being).

Even though something in me wants to defend Aristotle, and even though Derrida is way too simplisitic in his accusation that the entire metaphysical tradition agrees with Aristotle here (counterexamples would be Augustine and Bonaventure, who appear to hold that all thought and perhaps all reality is mediated by language), I think that Derrida is correct in his critique of Aristotle here. Christian thinkers like Augustine and Bonaventure and John Milbank would (and do) agree with him. So would Mikhail Bakhtin.

Further Derrida is correct in his description of the tradition’s privileging of speech over writing.

In his explanation for why this is the case, however, he is wrong, or overly simplistic (again). Derrida misconstrues (as Pickstock shows in After Writing) the reasons why at least some streams of the tradition privilege speech over writing. It is not the assumption that speech gets us closer to a present subject which is the locus of metaphysical presence (how could such a possibility even be thought before Descartes?); it is rather that time has a certain priority over space, since time (as Plato says in the Timeaus) is a moving image of eternity. Time evokes (and particiatpes in?) eternity more than space does. Hence speech, which is time-bound, is prior to writing, which is space-bound.

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Beer, _Purgatio_, & the End of Lent

Almost every day, I have the joy of talking to a Christ Church parishioner who comes up to me excitedly and tells me about a new beer they’ve discovered. Wow! What a wonderful and interesting life I get to live!

For the fifth Lent in a row, however, I decided once again to do the barely thinkable: I decided to give up all alcohol for Lent. This, year, however, I did something even more unheard of: I went “Eastern Orthodox style,” meaning that I continued my fast even on the Sundays in Lent! (Did you know that a faithful Orthodox Christian lives about 40% of each year, about 40% of his or her entire life, fasting in one form or another?)

It has truly been an amazing experience. Not only have I lost ten pounds without changing a single additional variable. Not only am I sleeping better. Not only is my budget that much closer to being responsible. But, in addition to all of that, my prayer life has improved, and that is what I want to talk to write about in this blog post.

St. Augustine, in Book VII of the Confessions, has a life-changing epiphany when he “discovers” the “books of the Platonists,” or what today we would call the “neoPlatonists.” From those books he learns that God is “simple:” without body, without spatiality, not subject to time or to change. But also from those books he begins to incorporate an ancient insight of mysticism (shared, again, by the tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy): that God reveals himself to the human soul in an experience which many mystics (including St. Augustine) call “divine illumination” or the “divine light.”

Now, when Augustine or someone like Symeon the New Theologian or indeed the neoPlatonist Plotinus speaks of this divine light, they always stress the importance of purity. In fact, neoplatonism injected into the stream of Christian tradition, inherited by the ancient monastics, the three-fold way of purification – illumination – unification.

Think about this “purification” like this. The human soul / mind / heart is like a multi-layered onion. You might think of the outermost layer of the onion as the noise which floods into our ears daily in the car, at home, in the coffee shop, or wherever. Beneath that external noise we have the many distracting thoughts which occupy our mind. Beneath that layer are the concerns and worries of our life (finances, health, etc.). Deepest of all one might find a painful and disturbing layer of damage caused, for example, by hurtful words spoken or things experienced in our childhood.

All of these “layers” essentially serves as distractions or barriers to the experience of the “divine light” of God in our innermost being. The goal of purification, then, not unrelated to the fasting of Lent, is to rid ourselves of the noise, to rid ourselves of the distractions of life.

This Lent I’ve experienced something of this purificaton, more this year than ever before. My “theology of the fruit of the vine” has not changed! I believe in myrth, conviviality, and feasting! I still wear beer t-shirts (even during Lent!). Young people still gather on my front porch after church and enjoy new, riveting beverages.

But my heart and mind are also captivated by the benefits of living without strong drink. It is a very small price to pay for deeper intimacy with my Lord.

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Lent: Saying “No” to the Divider

The following is an article I wrote for the newsletter of my church.

In the great 19th century German legend Faust, we meet the scholarly Dr. Faust in his study, struggling to figure something out, to discover some great scientific breakthrough. And then all of the sudden, a sinister and mysterious being called Mephistopheles appears out of nowhere in his study. Now, in the previous scene of the story Mephistopheles – a kind of Satanic or demonic figure – is seen in heaven dialoging with God, engaging God in a wager that he, Mephistopheles, can tempt God’s favorite human, Dr. Faust, and cause Dr. Faust to enter into a pact with himself, thereby betraying God.

And so here Mephistopheles is, in Dr. Faust’s study, and sure enough, Dr. Faust gives in: he agrees, by actually signing a contract with a few drops of his own blood. The terms of the contract? Faust will serve Mephistopheles for all eternity in hell, if Mephistopheles will just give him everything he wants before he dies.

Now, I won’t ruin the story for you by telling you how it turns out, but suffice to say that something similar is going in the story from Luke’s Gospel (chapter 4) about the temptation of Jesus, but with one key difference: the great tempter in this story today is not named “Mephistopheles;” he is named simply “The Devil.”

At first glance that might not seem too terribly important to you, but then you might notice that this character is explicitly named in this little story not once, not twice, but three times. It’s as if he is named three times, once for each of the three temptations which confront the famished Jesus … Jesus who is full of the power of the Spirit (having just been baptized in chapter 3) and who has just been led into the desert by that same spirit for the explicit purpose of being tempted.

What’s going on in these three temptations? Well, I think that by mentioning “the devil” 3 times, Luke is actually giving us a big hint, for the word “devil” in Greek has a very simple meaning: it means “the one who divides;” “the divider.” Who or what is the devil? Well, there’s a lot about the devil I’m not too sure about, but this I know: the devil is one who divides the things and the people that God has put together, and that, my friends, is a huge clue as to the nature of these temptations here in this desert in Luke chapter 4.

What is Jesus tempted with here? Three things: bread, power, and health. Now, let me ask you question: are these 3 things – bread, power, and health – are these bad things? No! They are good things! And it’s the very same for you & me this Lenten season. The things you are giving up: chocolate, beer, coffee, whatever … these are not bad things.

We are not called to give up sinful things for Lent; we are called to give up sinful things all the time. We are called to give up bad things in our baptism: this is the normal Christian life. During Lent, what we are called to “say no” to is good things: chocolate, beer, bread, power, health. But the question remains, “Why?” Why should we say “no” to these things if they are so good?

And the answer is the same for us as it was for Jesus. God wants us to have all of these things in abundance: chocolate, beer, bread, power, health … but he wants to give them to us as gifts, not as things grasped. And so you see, we’re not actually saying “no” to them; we are saying “not yet.”

Jesus understood “the logic of the gift” — that God was always going to give him the bread, the power, the health anyway … so why grasp after it? Why do what Adam did in the garden? Better to have a little patience and humility now, and then receive all good things as a free gift from the giver of all good things.

In Lent we are refusing the false dichotomies, the short cuts, and the cheap thrills of the Divider. We are saying “yes” to God, and saying “yes” to God’s gifts. We are saying “God, I want you now, and I really like chocolate and beer and all that good stuff, but I am willing to wait for it in your time, and in your way.” (And you know what? Chocolate tastes so much better when it comes as a gift and not something grasped. And it’s the same way with sex, with power, with health, and with everything else God has made.)

Don’t choose between God and God’s good gifts. Say “yes” to both, and wait for the gifts in God’s good time.

What God has joined together, let no one divide.

 

 

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Delighting in the Arcane

I recently stumbled across something which truly animated my soul (to dabble in prolixity). ‘Tis the following, one of “twenty-four theses of Radical Orthodoxy:”

As much as the secular, most pietisms are disliked since, as advocating the ‘spiritual’ they assume there is a secular. Radical Orthodoxy rejoices in the unavoidably and authentically arcane, mysterious, and fascinatingly difficult. It regards this preference as democratic, since in loving mystery, it wishes also to diffuse and disseminate it. We relish the task of sharing a delight in the hermetic with uninitiated others.

Wow. I’ve long sensed myself to be something of an evangelist. Not the kind, of course, that stands on the corner of a crowded and intersection and preaches at the volume of many decibels (though I have done that … recently!).

Rather, I’m the kind of evangelist who cannot conceive of pastoral ministry, or any other way of being human, apart from building communities of worship in which people come to participate in “real social space,” centered on Christ, belonging just because they, we, are human. (How Holy Baptism relates to this must be addressed in a separate post.)

And yet I confess that I have always felt a certain tension between, on the one hand, this urge, this conatus, to commend a message and to invite into deeper community, and, on the other hand, my theology which resists the attempt to dumb anything down, to “be relevant,” or to make the Gospel easier or more palatable.

Hence my encouragement at the above quotation.

Suddenly it all makes sense. As CS Lewis reminds us, human beings are designed to praise and laud Something Bigger than Oneself, and this is necessarily a social phenomenon. We cannot sing the praises of a good film or a rich red wine by ourselves … at least not fully. We must tell someone else; we must share the experience.

And yet, the experience we must share must be “bigger than oneself,” lofty, grand, great, unattainable. It must be beautiful in mystery. It cannot be easily grasped or conveniently assimilated.

So it is that, paradoxically, the difficult, ineffable way of theology and the divine, advocated by such personae as CS Lewis, GK Chesterton, Rowan Williams, and those involved in Radical Orthodoxy lends itself most “naturally” to the zeal of the evangelist.

 

 

 

 

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St. Augustine’s Basilica of Peace
On the architecture and the spatial layout of the Basilica Pacis (Basilica of Peace) at Hippo, where St. Augustine ministered, William Harmless writes,
Its ruins were excavated in the 1950’s, and its floor plan – 41 yards long, 20 yards wide – makes it one of the largest churches uncovered in Roman North Africa. It lay on the outskirts of town, away from the central marketplace with its old pagan temples. The first thing one would have noticed upon entering Augustine’s church was the flicker of flames from small oil lamps, filling the interior with a golden glow. The basilica’s floor, like that of many ancient churches, was inlaid with bright-colored mosaics. There were no pews. The congregation stood, men on one side, women on the other. Services could draw packed audiences. “The great numbers,” Augustine once noted, “crowd right up the walls; they annoy each other by the pressure and almost choke each other by their overflowing numbers.” The altar, unlike that found in medieval and many modern churches, stood in the center of the nave and was surrounded by wood railings. At the basilica’s far end [east end, I am guessing] was a semi-circular apse, lined with stone benches where the presbyters sat. At the apse’s center, slightly elevated, was the bishop’s seat (cathedra). From here Augustine presided and preached.
– Harmless, William, S.J. Augustine in his own Words Washington, DC: Catholic UP, 2010.
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Fleshing Out (& In) the Three-Fold Body of Christ

Every once and and while, when I am presiding at the altar during the service of Holy Eucharist, I will have a flash of insight into what’s really going on sacramentally, liturgically, ritually.

A couple of Sundays ago I was celebrating Rite I and I sort of had a conversation with a good friend echoing in my mind. We had been discussing the three-fold Body of Christ, or the Corpus Christi Triplex, which, for example, de Lubac discusses in his Catholicism.

My friend, who is transitioning from the Presbyterian pastorate to priesthood in the Episcopal Church (in New York City), was interrogating me about the relative importance of the mystical body (rightly understood, the consecrated bread) versus the true body (rightly understood, the gathered community of the baptized), and especially about the insistence by Radical Orthodoxy of the identification of the true body (corpus verum) with the gathered community of the baptized.

Serving at the altar that Sunday morning, it hit me: the bread (corpus mysticum) is subordinate to the people (corpus verum) simply because it is assimilated into the bodies, into the lives, of the people. The purpose of the bread is directed toward the people. The people are the fulfillment, the destination, the telos, of the bread.  (I think that William Cavanaugh on Augustine probably originally planted this seed in my mind several years ago.)

It was a simple insight, but profound.

 

 

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Liturgy & “the Linguistic Turn” of the 20th Century

In his Literary Criticism Terry Eagleton summarizes (as he alone can do) broad swaths of intellectual development by writing:

The hallmark of the “linguistic revolution” of the 20th century from Saussure to Wittgenstein to contemporary literary theory, is the recognition that “meaning” is not something that is simply “expressed” or “reflected” in language: it is actually produced by it.

For several years now I have been preaching that the same can be said, mutatis mutandis, for liturgy and doctrine or belief.

This epiphany, for me a kind of “liturgical turn,” is a preeminent reason why I needed to leave evangelicalism (in my case, conservative Presbyterianism, which certainly thinks that liturgy should express right belief instead of form or produce right belief) and move to a thoroughly liturgical, sacramental tradition.

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The Ups & Downs of Scripture & Liturgy

Many people are familiar with the saying “What goes up must come down.”

Fewer, however, have deeply meditated on the upward & downward motion which pervades the Christian narrative. For example, only after Christ is “lifted up” on the cross is he then is he lowered down into the depths of the earth, into Hades or Sheol, which many interpret as a kind of descent into Hell. And then, three days later, he is up again, risen victorious, for his disciples and (according to 1 Corinthians 15) a great multitude of 500 to see.

Now I am not one of those Episcopalians who seems to think that Eastern religions such as Buddhism are something we Christians should emulate. However, it does seem to me that this “down – up” pattern of the death and resurrection of Christ constitutes two halves of a larger whole, kind of like the pattern of the yin and the yang. The are stiched together, metaphysically, so to speak. You can’t have one without the other. They infuse and saturate each other with meaning.

This down – up pattern has been given the name of “Paschal Mystery” by the Church: what goes down must come up. And what comes up must first have gone down. Without death there is no resurrection life. Without the dark night there can be no sunrise. Without pruning no beautiful rose blossoms.

But as we approach the Feast of the Ascension (in our tradition considered one of the seven principal feasts of the Church) and the Day of Pentecost, it seems to me that there is another “yin-yang” pattern here, as well. Another “up – down” reality which is worthy of contemplation. In the Ascension Christ ascended up into the heavens and vanished from our view / presence. Why did he do this? Why did he go up?

In John 16:7 Jesus tells his disciples, “Unless I go away the Paraclete will not come to you.” Unless he leaves, that is, the Holy Spirit will not be poured down upon all flesh. In a similar vein in John’s resurrection story when Mary Magdalene tries to hold on to her risen Lord, he rebukes her saying, “Do not hold onto me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father” (John 20:17). It is as if he is saying, “Mary, don’t try to tie me down; I must go up. It is good for you and for the world that I go up. Only if I go up, can something even better come down.”

We who benefit from the entirety of the Christian canon realize that this “something better” is the gift of the Holy Spirit, poured down onto the Church on the Day of Pentecost. This Spirit, St. Paul tells us, is “the Spirit is the Lord” himself (2 Cor 3:17) and the Book of Acts speaks of the Holy Spirit as “The Spirit of the Lord.” That is, when the Spirit descended onto the Church, it was also Christ himself descending onto the Church, coming down and entering our hearts in a fresh, new, powerful way.

Without the downward descent of Good Friday, there can be no victorious burst of Easter resurrection. Without the upward vanishing of Ascension, there can be no downward outpouring of the Spirit of Life.

So here’s a “homework assignment.” The next time you are at church, look for this “up down” imagery in the liturgy. How many times in the Liturgy are things of various kinds elevated and or brought down?

Everything from the Sursum Corda (“Lift up your hearts / we lift them up unto the Lord”) to the manual actions of the Presider at the Table (notice how many times things are elevated or raised) contributes to this pattern in our lives. Look for it. Study it. It is worthy of contemplation.

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Spirit-Infused Dirt (Lenten Reflection)

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

It was only my third Ash Wednesday service ever (I was confirmed three short years ago), but the words have been ringing in my ears for almost two weeks now.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Why dust?

The other thing I can’t seem to expunge from my mind, along with these “words of imposition,” is Genesis 2:7, very near the beginning of our story (the Old Testament, or what the earliest Christians referred to as our family archive,).

The rabbis would have told the story something like this:

God comes, and God begins to roll up his sleeves and takes off his watch, placing it to the side so that it won’t get dirty. God takes his hands (strong, gentle hands which have just finished the work of creation in Genesis one) and he plunges them down into the fresh soil. (I wonder if he got dirt under his fingernails?) He drives his hands down into the dirt and scoops up a hunk of earth, dust, ashes. He elevates that hunk of dirt up to his face, and he breathes into that clod of earth his ruach elohim, the Spirit of God. And that hunk of earth begins to pulse with new life. It becomes a nephesh hayim, a living creature, alive with an energy the world had never known….

This is the basic pattern of spiritual formation. When God forms a creature spiritually, he elevates it. Just as he elevates or lifts up that hunk of dirt up to his face (in Hebrew and in Greek “face” implies personal presence) so also he elevates earthly things to the realm of heavenly things (see Colossians 3:1-17). Just as God elevates that hunk of dirt to become a living creature, so also he elevates “fleshy things” to become “spiritual things” (see Galatians 5).  This is the pattern: nature is elevated (not left behind) to become grace.

Because, you see, dirt is good, but a pulsing, living creature is far better. The things of the earth are good, but the things of heaven are far better. Bodies are good (after all, God made them!) but a spiritual man or woman (fully embodied for all eternity) is far better.

Now, one might want to move directly from the hunk of dirt to the Christian individual, thinking, “Oh, I get it … just as God elevated the hunk of dirt and perfects it, so also he does that with me!”

This is where a closer look at our narrative helps us. Because when you study the story, what you begin to realize is that the hunk of dirt does not foreshadow you and me as individuals. Rather, it points to Christ. In 1 Corinthians 15:45-47 we are told (paraphrasing slightly) that “the first man Adam became a living creature, but the second man Christ became a life-giving Spirit.”

Jesus is the ultimate creature (Colossians 1:15 calls him “the first born of all creation”) who was elevated. He is the ultimate spiritual formee. This is why Hebrews 5:8 says that Jesus “learned obedience through the things that he suffered.” He did not “pop” out of the womb totally obedient. He had to learn obedience through suffering, rejection, and death.

He was elevated beyond all imagination. Like Neo at the end of the first Matrix he has “busted into a new world.” He is the “Pioneer of our Faith” (Heb 12:2). He has broken through the veil, the barrier with holds you and me down (fear, sin, death).  He was elevated beyond all imagination, going where no man or woman had gone before.

But not until after he was “de-elevated,” demoted. Not until he went down, like a seed falling into the earth, the dirt, the ashes to die.

Why “dust?” This is why.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

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Rite of Burial: an Easter Liturgy

I had a powerful experience this past week.

You see, I am an Episcopal priest. It is no secret that the average age of the Episcopal Church is significantly older than the average age of the population in general.

And so it is that I do lots of funerals. “Lots,” here, means perhaps one every six weeks.

Last week I performed a burial service for a man who was baptized at my parish many years ago but was living in Dallas. He was in his early 60’s and died from a sudden heart attack while jogging.

At his funeral in Tyler not one family member was present; instead I was surrounded by about fifty friends who came to grieve and celebrate. Fifty friends together with his 9th grade Sunday School teacher from our parish.

Today I received a letter from his brother, his brother who has been incarcerated for years. He thanked me for performing the service, and went on to explain that, at the exact time of the service, he was reading the Order for Burial, worshipping with us, hundreds of miles away from his prison cell.

And here is how he closed his letter: “There is a little noticed page in our Book of Common Prayer that is really helping me get through this, page 507. Check it out. May the Lord be with you.”

Here is what appears on page 507 of the Book of Common Prayer:

The liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy. It finds all its meaning in the resurrection. Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we, too, shall be raised.

The liturgy, therefore, is characterized by joy, in the certainty that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from teh love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

This joy, however, does not make human grief unchristian. The very love we have for each other in Christ brings deep sorrow when we are parted by death. Jesus himself wept at the grave of his friend. So, while we rejoice that one we love has entered into the nearer presence of our Lord, we sorrow in sympathy with those who mourn.

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A Word about our Worship (Epiphany Eucharist)

Most of my work as a priest for the last year and a half has been the establishment & development of a new worshiping community here in Tyler, Texas.

In the Epiphany Eucharist we strive to worship the Living God in ways that are thoughtful yet reverent. We are trying to give folks a taste of liturgy that is ancient and substantial, yet accessible. Just as we don’t worship in Latin(!), so also we look for ways to foster peoples’ ability to connect with what we are doing in the liturgy, and why.

Why do we make the sign the cross, for example, and how and when?

The music in this service is more contemporary than most traditional Episcopal Eucharists.

As for the Scripture lessons, our practice is to include two lessons (a “first lesson,” either from a New Testament letter or the Old Testament or the Apocrypha and a Gospel lesson) and a psalm (or canticle) in response to the first lesson. Of these three readings (including the Psalm) two of the them will match the lesson from the lectionary used by the other services of Christ Church on any given Sunday. In this way the entire Christ Church community is worshiping together to a large extent.

As for the liturgy, the Epiphany Eucharist is (what is colloquially known as) a “Rite III” Eucharist. (See page 400 of the Book of Common Prayer.) However, in an effort not to “reinvent the wheel,” what we are doing is borrowing liturgies from around the Anglican Communion. For example, in Lent we worship with a liturgy from the Church of Ireland. In the Sundays in Eastertide we use a liturgy from Australia. In ordinary time we use two liturgies: one from Kenya and one from New Zealand.

In this way we celebrate our worldwide, sacramental communion of believers!

 

 

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The Gospel According to (the Feast of the) Epiphany

If ever there were a perfect text for the meaning behind the feast of the Epiphany, surely it is the Third Song of Isaiah (Canticle 11, BCP p. 87), taken from Isaiah 60.

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you.

For behold, darkness covers the land; deep gloom enshrouds the peoples.

But over you the Lord will rise,  and his glory will appear upon you.

Nations will stream to your light,  and kings to the brightness of your dawning.

Your gates will always be open; by day or night they will never be shut.

They will call you, The City of the Lord,  The Zion of the Holy One of Israel.

Violence will no more be heard in your land, ruin or destruction within your borders.

You will call your walls, Salvation, and all your portals, Praise.

The sun will no more be your light by day; by night you will not need the brightness of the moon.

The Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory.

Darkness covers the land; deep gloom enshrouds the peoples. When Mary and Joseph were en route from Nazareth to Bethlehem it was surely the case that darkness and gloom were in control. God’s people sensed that they were still in exile, that “restoration” was a cruel joke, that the false gods and oppressive powers had the upper hand. Into this milieu a totally new kind of king was born.

Nations will stream to your light; kings to the brightness of your dawning. As Anglican New Testament scholar NT Wright ceaselessly points out, this “business” about the “nations” began way back with Abraham. It was then, with Abram (as he was then called) that YHWH first announced that his work in and through his covenant people was to bless the whole world, all nations on the earth. “In you,” God promised the Father of our Faith, “all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” And so it is, that when we see these strange magician-kings bearing gifts to and worshipping the babe in the manger, we are literally seeing the fulfillment of that prophetic thread which is woven throughout the Old Covenant Scriptures.

They will call you the City of the Lord, the Holy One of Israel. Duke New Testament Scholar Richard Hays, in his Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, writes persuasively that the fulfillment of the Old Covenant occurs not simply in the man Jesus Christ but also in his Body, the Church. The New Covenant ecclesia (the Greek word for “church”) in which God’s people meet, no longer in Central Zion Proper, but now decentralized  all over the globe, is this “City of the Lord.” When black people, white people, rich people, poor people, conservative people, liberal people, etc. etc. gather in Eucharistic fellowship with the Baptized Faithful, it is then that the “nations [are streaming] to your light.”

The Sun will no more be your light by day; by night you will not need the brightness of the moon. When I tuck Bella and Ellie into bed each night, just after we finish our prayers, they always remind me to turn on the nightlight (which sometimes turns out to be the light in the bathroom next to their room). However, on those rare occasions when these little girlies persuade me (or their Mommy) to sleep with them all night, this infantile need for a nightlight disappears. In the very same way, St. John tells us in his Apocalypse, “And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” (Rev. 22:5, ESV)

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Wine in the Morning

One of my consistent findings over the last few years (including over a decade now in pastoral ministry) is that few topics stir up more interest than the topic of alcohol and drinking. This is true for sermons, blog posts, lectures, as well as just casual conversation.

And so it is that I have found myself marveling over the past year or so (ever since I was ordained as an Episcopal Priest) at the mirthful, exuberant experience of drinking wine in the morning.

Now, I only do this once per week, mind you.

And in fact, it only happens on Sunday mornings (though I’ve heard of priests for whom this experience occurs in a more quotidian fashion).

But every Sunday morning, with few exceptions, over the last year or so, I have drunk wine in the morning. And not sissy wine. Not “small” wine. Rather, 18% alcohol (that’s 36 proof!) Tawny Port.

And, interestingly enough, it only happens at the altar of the cosmically propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world. That is, it only happens at the table of eschatological feasting, where, with all the saints and angels, we celebrate the victory of God over all our enemies, sins, and fears. That is, it happens only at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.

Now, granted, when I drink wine on Sunday mornings, I’m not drinking it alone. Far from it: there are masses of co-celebrants who drink in the tangy-sweet liquid of surprising joy. However, I am left to consume all that remains in the chalice, that vessel the beauty of which is solely designed to laud the priceless nectar it contains.

And so there I stand, Sunday after Sunday, at this altar / table of torture / joy, called on to consume all the blood / wine that remains in the sanctified goblet. And consume it I do, Sunday after Sunday.

Sometimes there is not so much left.

Sometimes, however, two of the largest gulps I can manage are required to do the job, and on these Sundays, my head swims with mystery.

The mystery of love made drink, the mystery of wine made blood, the mystery of a God who chooses to intoxicate his Beloved as a way of making them more sober, more sane, more serious about what Life is all about.

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Tourist or Participant? (Religious Art & the Church)

At the gracious invitation of the Tyler Museum of Art, I recently gave a lecture there entitled “Christians Then & Now: Religious Art and the Christian Church.” This event was held in conjunction with the exhibit, “Object of Devotion: Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum.”

Abstract: “When it comes to approaching Christian art, there are really two different approaches. The first is the approach of the spectator, the tourist, someone viewing the art from the outside, as if the art were an object, an inert item. That is one approach, and it is an approach which I am going to suggest is connected with what one thinker calls ‘the disenchantment of the modern world.’ The other approach is that of the participant, the member, the one who belongs. What I suggest is that that approach … might have something to do with the ‘re-enchantment’ of the postmodern world.”

You can podcast the talk here.

(Note: the audio quality on the first couple of minutes is not great. My apologies.)

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The Fecundity of Walter Ong

I am currently in the final stages of discerning a possible opportunity to begin doctoral work at the University of Dallas under the esteemed postmodern medievalist Phillip Rosemann. As a part of our ongoing dialogue designed to culminate in a final decision (mutually discerned) to apply to this program or not, Professor Rosemann invited me to read Orality and Literacy by Walter Ong. In so doing he correctly perceived, on the basis of our discussions so far, a great interest on my part for texts and authors related to genealogy, or the intellectual developments which have led western society and culture down the road it has taken in particular toward secularism and modernity.

I must say that the Ong book is among the most original books I have read in a while in its fecundity and heuristic value, rivaling even Pierre Hadot’s work in its ability to shed light upon our cultural and intellectual predecessors, showing how they viewed the world and why.

Whereas much of Hadot’s work focuses on the “schools” of ancient philosophy (Stoicism, Epicureanism, etc.) and shows how they organically lead to major historical strands within Christianity, Ong takes as his point of departure the “pre-literate” culture makers of the Homeric poets and bards, whose description of the world, as is the case with all pre-literate (ie, oral) thought leaders, is decisively shaped and determined by the form of their discourse. In a world which knew nothing of writing (let alone an alphabet or still less moveable type and the printing press) their description of the world was cast in terms of formulaic units of text (eg, repeated patterns of subjects, verbs, and objects), repetition of events, epithets (eg, “crafty Odysseus,” “the wine-dark sea,” “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”). Just as important, their “genre” (to be horribly anachronistic) was epic narrative, which we would identify as closely related to poetry, given its conformity to strict patterns of meter or scansion.

This book reminds me of the phrase of Alfred North Whitehead who spoke of the “simplicity on the far side of complexity.” The explanatory power of Ong’s thesis (which builds on the work of, among others, Marshall McLuhan, Eric Havelock, and Milman Parry) to explain why the ancients described their world they way they did is staggering. For example, there is the simple matter of memory (a topic given ample attention by Ong). Why did the ancients rely so heavily of formulaic expressions, epithets and repetition in their rendition of important events? (Why, for example, is there so much repetition, say, in the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2 or in the Abraham cycle of the same book?) Why, further, did they not cast their reports in ways more amenable to the modern, “scientific” mindset? Before one delves into complex matters of historical development, there is the simple fact that they were just trying to remember the account being given. Think about life with no writing at all: of course “tools” such as repetition, formula, and epithet would be of great value. (Note that I am here presupposing that the Bible has an oral provenance which precedes its being committed to writing in the Hebrew language. This is an assumption shared by Ong.)

To take this a bit further, consider again the structure of the creation account of Genesis 1. Why is it structured in terms of six days? Given Ong’s thesis, it would be a great mistake not to include in one’s answer to this question that the communal guardians of the story were simply trying to remember an ancient narrative, to continue the story in the living memory of the people. This is the case regardless of whatever else one might want to argue about the creation story of Genesis 1, any account of Genesis 1 (seeking either to undermine it or to bolster its validity) must take these factors into account.

Briefly I want to list some other areas to which this book is particularly relevant:

I have already hinted at the area of Biblical criticism.

I have already alluded to the genealogical import of the book.

Plato. Ong highlights the deep ambiguity in Plato’s posture toward writing as opposed to orality: in the Republic he banishes poets from the city but then in the Phaedrus and elsewhere he extols the beauty and value of oral dialogue, complaining that writing will lead to a loss of memory.

Rhetoric. Ong shows how, paradoxically, rhetoric both presupposes writing (Aristotle could have never developed the loci communes without the mental structure afforded him by writing) and is eclipsed by (that especially intense form of) writing (known as alphabet-based moveable type). The Romantic movement, itself utterly dependent upon moveable type as well as a level of interiority which only a deeply literate culture could achieve, was the nail in the coffin of rhetoric.

Depth Psychology. In a fascinating discussion of Freud, Ong shows how the depth psychology which he spawned is utterly dependent upon literary developments which could only be achieved in a highly literate culture, for example the development of the round character. (The characters of oral narrative are by necessity “flat,” eg, Odysseus, Adam, Abraham.)

Derrida. In addition to interacting with Derrida’s reading of Plato viz a viz speech and writing (a crucial issue explored in Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing), Ong masterfully, provocatively, and simply shows that what Derrida does is to downgrade oral discourse so that he does not have to deal with it. If orality is stricken with the metaphysics of presence, then Derrida is liberated to deal only with the written text, and to attempt to argue that the text is all there is. Page 162 is the best (and most concise) summary of Derrida I’ve seen.

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Questioning our Worship (X): why so much repetition?

This is part 10 (the final installment) of a 10-part series.

A few weeks ago I had a riveting conversation with a man here in Tyler, a prominent academic, about liturgy and worship. “Episcopal liturgy is boring,” he honestly expressed. “It’s not exciting; I never learn anything new in the liturgy.”

And then, just last week, I was honored to be a part of another conversation about church and ministry and worship, this time with a couple of local Starbucks baristas, one in her twenties and the other probably in his 30’s.

They extolled the worship at their church, because (unlike the local megachurch they had once attended but then had left) the worship was not over-programmed. There was far less of a sense of manipulation and infinitesimally planned, staged, and choreographed performance.

“At our new church, the worship is free. If the Spirit leads, then we might keep on worshiping for hours,” she said with a deep sense of satisfaction.

I’m really grateful that, having been in Tyler now for ten months, it seems like I’m at the point that people are willing to have real, authentic conversations with me. These two examples above have been particularly important because they center on the great strength of our Anglican tradition: worship.

In these and other discussions (including in my Christian Formation class), I have used a couple of different analogies to help folks imagine what the purpose and point of the liturgy might be. (For Thomas Aquinas, analogy is perhaps the foundation of his whole theology.)

The first is language learning. How does a small child (one year old, two years old) begin to learn language? Does she learn it from a book? From an owner’s manual? From a Power Point Presentation? No. Instead, the little one is thrust into an already existing community (which, by the way, she did not choose). Then, over time and with lots of repetition, the muscles in her tongue and lips begin the difficult work of forming habits. (Habit is a key word for thinking about what the liturgy is.) In this way, the child learns, gradually, over time, and with fits and starts, how to say, “da da,” an utterance which eventually gives way to the fully formed “daddy.”

What are we doing in the liturgy if not learning a new language, which will then form us into a different way of thinking and living (Rom 12:1-2)?

A second analogy comes from ancient Roman military practice. When the Roman armies would move into a new territory of battle, they would always set up their camps in the exact same way. The bunks and the latrine and the fire place and the kitchen were always in the same place in the camp.

Why did they do this? To be sure, efficiency was one reason. But in addition to that they knew that what the soldiers needed was a measure of stability, familiarity, and even comfort in a disorienting, chaotic, and stressful situation.

Today more than ever we live in a world (even here in Tyler) which is more fragmented, more rootless, more anxious than ever. One more entertaining and distracting venue is about the last thing we need. As Neil Postman wrote well over a decade ago, we are “entertaining ourselves to death,” primarily as a way to escape the stressful anxiety of the world we live in.

We don’t need more stimulation; we don’t need more dopamine. We need a space of stability and rootedness where we can rest, where we can be formed into a new set of healthy habits will prepare us to worship God for all eternity.

For more, listen to Fr. Matt’s Christian Formation podcasts, accessible at www.christchurchtyler.org.

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Questioning our Worship (IX): “Baptism: why water, why babies?”

This is part 9 of a 10-part series.

When you hear the word “salvation,” what do you think of?

Many modern people, both in the church and out, imagine (in a way quite foreign to the thought world of the Bible) “salvation” to be some sort of mystical “zapping” of the soul such that, after the magic “zapping,” one now has an unbreakable and unquestionable connection to God.

On the contrary, however, when a first century Jewish person imagined “salvation,” he or she would have thought of images very earthy and mundane: lots of flowing wine, the fatted calf roasting on the altar, lots of children and grandchildren running around, good land to live on and to work, justice and mercy and material blessing for the poor and the outcast. One thinks of shalom, embodied life in the Kingdom of God.

It should therefore come as no surprise that, when it comes to “salvation” in the church of Jesus Christ (who, after all, was a first century Jew), such blessing comes to us through ordinary means: the vibrating vocal cords of a preacher, printed words on a page, bread and wine.

Baptism is a case in point. When God chose to create a rite to ingraft us into the community of God’s people, he chose water as a primary means to do so. Why?

There are too many reasons to list, but a perusal of the “Thanksgiving over the Water” in our baptismal rite (BCP 306) is a good place to start.

We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water.

Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.

Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage

in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus

received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy

Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death

and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.

Water is central to the creation story, the exodus story, the Jesus story … therefore it is central to our salvation story.

But now for a more taxing question: why do we baptize infants, in addition to adults?

In my Christian Formation class at Christ Church, we are discussing four arguments for infant baptism:

1. The argument from redemptive history: we perform this rite because an analogous rite was performed in the old covenant: circumcision.

2. The argument from ordinary means: if salvation is not a zapping in the heart, but rather comes to us through ordinary means, then this practice makes sense.

3. The argument from corporate solidarity: scripture teaches that salvation is primarily a “community thing,” and only secondarily and “individual thing,” so infant baptism should be seen in that framework, as a way of bringing a little one into the community of God’s people.

4. The argument from prevenient grace: if God chooses us before we choose him (as 1 John 4:19 seems to imply), then it makes sense that we have a ritual which gives expression to that fact, as infant baptism surely does.

For more, listen to Fr. Matt’s Christian Formation podcasts, accessible at www.christchurchtyler.org.

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