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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Christianity & “Contamination”

Arnold I. Davidson (U. Chicago), in his introduction to the thought of the magisterial intellectual historian Pierre Hadot, summarizes a major theme of Hadot’s thought as “contamination.” (Philosophy as a Way of Life 4). Contamination is the idea that, seemingly from the very beginning of Christian doctrine, any “pristine” forms of thought quickly – if not immediately – get synthesized and meshed with “non-Christian” ideas, from such various sources as Greek mystery religions, ancient mythologies, neoplatonic philosophy, etc.

Davidson points out that for schools of thought such as Aristotelianism, Platonism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism, this kind of “contamination” is a real problem.

But not so for Christianity, at least not in the same way. Why not? Because Christianity, from the very beginning, is always already contaminated. Just read Paul’s writings (and his life and times in Acts) in the NT. Christianity is already, just a couple of decades after the death of Christ, messily interacting with Judaism. And Paul opts, time and time again, for pragmatic ways and means: circumcising Timothy, taking on Jewish vows (in Acts, he does this not once but twice, the second time explicitly to show his Jewish detractors just how Jewish he is), etc. But, even prior to this, the Incarnation itself is already “contaminated.” God contaminates himself by taking on human flesh. Indeed, this kind of messiness is always already packed into the essence of the Christian religion.

Pluralistic diversity is at the very center and foundation of the Christian religion (not to mention the Christian God). May the denizens of pluralistic secularism come home to the true pluralistic community of the members of the body of Christ in the eucharistic community of the church.

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The Two Types of Tradition

There are two kinds of tradition which play important roles in the life of the church for the world.

First, there is (oral) “Tradition,” which, as St. Basil says, refers primarily to the handing down of ritual actions in the liturgical worship of the church. This kind of tradition is of course in theory subject to Scripture, though it is hard to imagine how it could “contradict Scripture.” On the other hand, there is a sense in which this kind of tradition is prior to Scripture in that, since time immemorial, it has conditioned the public reading of Scripture in specific, proscribed ways. The public reading of Scripture, in other words, is embedded or enfolded within this ritual action which is the church’s liturgy. (Scripture itself refers to this kind of Tradition.)

Second, a very different type of tradition is what Alisdair MacIntyre (and others) have described in the following terms (Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue p 221):

The traditions through which particular practices are transmitted and reshaped never exist in isolation for larger social traditions. What constitutes such traditions?We are apt to be misled here by the ideological uses to which the concept of a tradition has been put by conservative political theorists. Characteristically such theorists have followed Burke in contrasting tradition with reason and the stability of tradition with conflict. Both contrasts obfuscate. For all reasoning takes place within the context of some traditional mode of thought, transcending through criticism and invention the limitations of what had hitherto been reasoned in that tradition; this is as true of modern physics as of medieval logic. Moreover when a tradition is in good order it is always partially constituted by an argument about the goods the pursuit of which gives to that tradition its particular point and purpose.

So when an institution–a university, say, or a farm, or a hospital–is the bearer of a tradition of practice or practices, its common life will be partly, but in a centrally important way, constituted by a continuous argument as to what a university is and ought to be or what good farming is or what good medicine is. Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict. Indeed when a tradition becomes Burkean, it is always dying or dead.

In this latter sense tradition is an ongoing dialogue that takes place over large periods of time within particular communities.

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“Strange Ecclesiology,” Indeed

In his article about the Church of Scotland’s recent decision to “appoint” its first openly practicing homosexual minister, Westminster Seminary’s Carl Trueman argues that the decision of some evangelical churches to remain in the C of S but not to associate (including financially) with the denominiation or with non-orthodox parishes is “strange ecclesiology.” And I agree.

However, Truman’s own ecclesiology, it seems to me, is just as strange, in its advocacy of separating from denominations when they don’t conform to one’s own idea of “orthodoxy.”

It seems to me that this approach (inscribed into the history of Protestantism, and, in its own way, post-Tridentine Romanism) is problematic on three levels:

First, who gets to say what orthodoxy is? Some arbitrary conglomeration of individuals and congregations who band together on the basis of agreement? On the contrary, orthodoxy is the rule of faith, which is concretely embodied in the creeds of the church in her liturgy. Beyond this, we are called to engage in an ongoing, open-ended discussion of real listening and give and take. This discussion has a name: tradition.

Second, and related, the very idea of a denomination is fatally problematic. That is to say, efforts to organize the church on the basis of any doctrinal content other than what all Christians believe amounts to ideological gnosticism, and not the witness of proclamation of the Christian church. It guts the church of her primary way of imaging the God of which she is an icon: unity. (Within this unity of God and analogously of the church there is of course great diversity. Hence the presence of various interlocutors in the ongoing dialogue.)

Third, as NT scholar (and friend) Daniel Kirk points out here, denomination wars aggravate and encourage Gentile-like (and Pharisee-like) conflict before a watching world. This is the very kind of division and power-play that Jesus and Paul rail against. (Of course the church has always been full of sinners, but denominationalism raises this kind of conflict to a new level.)

What binds the church together in unity is her eucharistic liturgy, which necessarily involves Scripture, bishops, and creeds (among other things). I do believe in something called “church discipline” (as I have posted on here) but this is quite different than breaking the unity of the church at a structural level. (What I mean by “unity,” by the way, is eucharistic unity: sharing the eucharist around the same table.)

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Candler on Participation & Representation

In his Theology, Rhetoric, and Manuduction, Peter Candler “defines” participation and representation (p. 34):

By ‘participation’ I refer to an ontological principle by which creatures ‘are’ by analogy to the way in which God ‘is,’ but also the notion that sacra doctrina is a kind of scientia which participates in God’s knowledge of himself, and is therefore not something superadded to God.

And again,

Representation … is a matter of immediate apprehension by virtue of an exterior sign, and is removed from the variables of time and human communities. As such, representation is the fundamental philosophical and theological strategy of modernity.

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Genealogy of Modern Thomism

I have been trying to map out the genealogy of modern Thomist movements (using Fergus Kerr’s Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians as well as The Cambridge Companion to Christian Thought), and here is what I found:

1. Leo XIII decided to “revive scholastic philosophy and theology which had fallen largely out of use,” and issues Aeterni Patris (1879), to “advocate the return of the church to ‘the wisdom of St. Thomas.’” (“Thomism [1], modern, Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, 703).

2. Desire Mercier, at the Higher Institute of Philosophy (which he himself established in Louvain in 1889) was able to bring (the study of) Thomism and scholasticism into dialogue with the contemporary scene, largely due to the fact that he was working in the vernacular (French), as opposed to many of his contemporaries at monastic schools, etc., who were required to write in Latin.

3. Thus the study of Thomism and scholasticism begins to gain currency in the late 19 century. Enter Maurice Blondel and Henri Bergson, who (were perceived to have) resonated with many aspects of Thomism. Many Catholic thinkers begin to be attracted to them.

4. But due to the non-Catholic aspects of some of their thought, they also cause something of a scare, and this prompts  a reaction (including Pius VII’s Humani Generis in 1950). Garrigou-Langrange and Gardiel, both 20th century Thomists who were reacting against (the catholic attraction to) Blondel and Bergson, both ground the mind’s immediate grasp of reality in the stable concept of being abstracted from the object of sense experience, thus securing a longed for stability. This sounds like representation to me. Garrigou constructed “a Thomistic metaphysics and philosophy of God grounded upon the three degrees of abstraction he had inherited from Cajetan, the 16th-century Dominican commentator on Thomas.” (“Thomism (1), modern” 704) Maritain (like Garrigou, a Dominican) was deeply influenced by Garrigou (especially his Cajetan view of the three degrees of abstraction), but also by Bergson (an influence he never superceded). Maritain is a “systematic neo-Thomist.”

5. Etiene Gilson. Gilson, the hallmark of whose work is a close textual attentiveness to the medievals (Augustine, Bonaventure, Thomas, and Duns Scotus) opposed Maritain’s proclivity toward abstraction as a basis for knowledge, and claimed that this kind of neo-sholasticism is not Thomistic. Gilson limited his work, however, by and large, to historical study of Thomas’ text.

6. Balthassar, de Lubac, Congar are more properly thought of as humanist Thomists, following Gilson, and are critical of Thomist scholasticism, including its Baroque and Twentieth Century retrievals.

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Sexuality & Divorce in the Contemporary Church

Many people who keep up with me will know that, in my new role as candidate for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, I am in the process (it will surely be a life long process) of trying to think more deeply about issues surrounding human sexuality.

Talking about this recently with a fellow seminarian (actually, a friend in the Lutheran program here at my seminary) I was confronted with a really good point.

Many conservative types (such as myself) who perhaps have a more “traditional” opinion regarding homosexuality become quite silent when the topic of divorce comes up. My friend suggested (though I don’t think I agree with him) that the Scriptures are more clear on this issue than on homosexuality.

What is true, however, is that Jesus explicitly addresses divorce, and not homosexuality, in the gospel narratives (Matt 19). Why is this important? Because, as another friend pointed out, Anglicanism has always followed “the catholic tradition” of seeing the Gospels as having a certain priority over other parts of the Christian Bible, and this view is embodied in our liturgy. For the classic statement of this by Origen, see here.

Joel at Living Text has a post on divorce which I find quite compelling.

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Bishops’ Statement on Episcopal Polity

Some encouraging news from the world of the Episcopal Church.

Dr. Phil Turner, Dr. Ephraim Radner (member of the Covenant Design Group), and Dr. Christopher Seitz, along with about fifteen bishops in the Episcopal Church (including our own +Don Wimberly) have issued a statement which insists that the diocese (with its bishop and standing committee) is the “chief organ of unity” in the church. By “church” here the document intends the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion, and the historic church catholic. This is the view, for example of St. Ignatius, who saw the unity of the church in the bishop, surrounded by the bishop’s presbyters. (One source on which the paper is based is a letter from ++Rowan, written several months ago.)

As I have written elsewhere, this view is utterly consistent not just with the proposed Covenant, but also with the Windsor Report itself (together with the documents and the ecclesiology on which it is based).

Why is this important? And why now?

Because one of the things which the Epicopal Church General Convention will be dealing with this summer (even if by way of avoidance of the issue) is the proposed Anglican Covenant. Many bishops and leaders in the church have already predicted a rejection of the covenant by the General Convention. The argument of this paper, though, is that if this happens, individual bishops / dioceses will have the right to voluntarily affirm the covenant to Canturbury and the rest of the Communion.

One interesting point made in the paper is that, since membership in the Anglican Communion appears in the Preamble to the Episcopal Church’s constitution, a breach of that membership (something which a rejection of the covenant could bring about) would amount to a nullification of the church’s constitution itself.

Please pray for the Church, pray “for the peace of Jerusalem.”

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Liturgical View of Scripture: Conclusion

For the introduction to this series, go here.

What is the point of all this? Maybe it is this. Have you ever wondered why it is only modern “protestant types” (liberal and evangelical: really two sides of the same coin, in that they both reject all of the above) who get all hot & bothered over biblical “contradictions?” It is not a coincidence.

“Catholic types” (read: historical traditions who have always known that Scripture is a time bound practice in the bosom of the church) don’t really get too hung up about it, and for good reason.

Another way of saying all of this is that Scripture is mediated through the church and her liturgy. And if that is the case, then the messy details which might seem like an outsider to be earth shattering differences, are in fact part of a larger conversation and development.

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Liturgical View of Scripture (IV): Scripture Itself

Intro to series. Part I. Part II. Part III.

Finally, NT Scripture itself teaches that there is another stream of “revelation” or “teaching” or something that comes to the church (this is ecclesiology) from God other than just Scripture: see the following:
•    2 Thess 2:15. Here the verbal and written apostolic instruction is subsumed under the heading of the ‘traditions’, suggesting not a two source revelation paradigm, but rather one source –  God, who uses two unified means, namely written and oral which are harmonious rather than contradictory.
•    Luke 1:1-4. Here we find the oral tradition (v.2) preceding Scripture as a source of catechesis (the word used in v.4).
•    John 20:30 and 21:25.
•    There is Paul in I Cor 11:23: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you….”
•    There is 2 Tim 2:2: “Entrust the things which you heard from me to faithful men.”

Conclusion to this series.

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Liturgical View of Scripture (III): History

Intro to this series. Part I. Part II.

Now for some history.

Another anecdote. In a liturgy class here we were discussing the Didache. Modern scholarship now dates it at 100 CE. Now, what is interesting about the Didache (among other things) is that the Eucharistic liturgy it gives us is in certain very important ways continuous with the way that the church (many branches of it) continued to celebrate the Eucharist down through the centuries. The Didache has the same shape or structure (in important respects) as both the Eastern Orthodox Church has always had as well as the Roman Catholic Church. It is this shape or structure which is then recovered in the 19th and 20th century “liturgical renewal movement” (eg, Dom Gregory Dix) and then imported back into many Protestant churches (including Anglicanism).

The preceding paragraph allows us to say that the liturgy of the church predates (at least much of) the NT documents. We know that if they were worshiping in a particular way in the year 100, then (because liturgy is inherently conservative) they were worshipping that way in the year AD 60.

Hence, liturgy is older than Scripture. Now what, exactly, does that “prove?” I am not quite sure, but this realization has had the effect on me of opening my mind to the possibility that Scripture is something which somehow belongs “within” the liturgy. And I think one could develop this in many ways, including the very liturgy of the didache which is consistent with “the Great tradition” (alluded to above) in which the reading of the Scriptures is decidedly a liturgical act or a liturgical reality. Hence the liturgy provides the context for Scripture.

Now we finally come to the Paschal Mystery, or “the death and resurrection of Christ.” What is the liturgy? One could say that it simply is the Paschal Mystery. It is the death and resurrection of Christ ritually enacted (important phrase) in so many ways and on so many levels. This is true for the Anaphora of the Eucharist; it is true for the rite of Holy Baptism; it is true for the Great Vigil of Easter, out of which and around which developed the entire liturgical year. (BTW, we know about that from another of these ancient historical documents: the reconstructed liturgy of the Roman presbyter Hippolytus.)

Next article: Part IV.

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Liturgical View of Scripture (II): (Philosophy of) Time

Intro to this series

Previous article (part I)

Here is another reason why the differences in Scripture aren’t such a huge deal: time. This is one of Rowan William’s main Leitworts. The church is in the process of a grand conversation which is leading somewhere. It is leading, ultimately, to the new heavens and the new earth.

Conversations take time. This fits perfectly with my Vosian understanding of Pauline eschatology. Conservatives look at this posture within Anglicanism and call it “neverending indeterminacy” because they want something given, something spatialized, something fixed, static and stable, some kind of original autographa. Over and against that, what liturgical traditions are really showing is that our life (which is liturgical), that is, our reading of Scripture, takes place in a temporality which is analogous to the temporality of the biblical narrative (as Rowan Williams argues here).

If you want to understand the deep theology of liturgy, you must see that it is about God’s actions taking place in and through time (which Plato says is a moving image of eternity).

This, too — liturgical theology — is ecclesiology.

Next article (part III)

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Liturgical View of Scripture (I): Communion of Saints

Here is the introduction to this series.

Here is Part II.

I have spoken to some friends about how the liturgy has transformed my attitude toward a feminist person at my seminary. Experiencing this person (let’s call her “Jane”) in the liturgy, interacting with her in the liturgy, prompted the realization that, although she may hold many views which I find objectionable, she is a member of the body of Christ, and is clearly worshipping Jesus. I think that this is a powerful anecdote which begins to show how liturgy can transform the way we deal or cope with biblical messiness and interbiblical “conflict” (what some people call “contradictions in the Bible”).

I am drawing an analogy here between myself & Jane, on the one hand, and, say, Joshua and Judges (vis a vis the conquest), or the Old Testament’s portrayal of harem warfare, or whatever biblical conflict (“contradiction”) you like. By the way, one implication here is that it is not the case that “Israel has misreprented YHWH” (say, in the affirmation and committing of harem warfare) but rather that we, the people of God, have (possibly) misrepresented YHWH. Huge difference there, one which (in some ways) is less traumatic or fatal or disturbing. (By the way, and I hope to come back to this at some point, Anglicanism has never affirmed that Scripture is inerrant…. For that matter, I don’t think that classical Presbyterianism has either, at least until our isolated modern denominations did so, has it?)

But because of this analogy, because Jane and I are not just in the same family as each other (and — within the liturgy — we find a way to live peacefully with our differences) but also in the same family as whoever it was who “wrote” or spoke or passed down the Old Testament (on principle I don’t use the phrase “Hebrew Bible” anymore except in limited situations. That phrase contradicts one of my basic points here.), these differences are worth discussing and struggling with, but they don’t cause some crisis in the church. They neither prompt us nervously to rush to Scripture’s defense, nor do they prompt us to jettison Scripture as something which is hopelessly flawed.

This, by the way, is ecclesiology.

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“The Body’s Grace:” ++Rowan on Human Sexuality

I just read Rowan’s article “The Body’s Grace.” I am glad I did. It is a wonderful article in almost every respect. I had already read — and profited from — Michel Foucault on human sexuality as always-already socially constructed, and so Rowan’s points about “the hermeneutics of sexual desire” (my term) made complete sense.

When built upon by Christian anthropology (specifically, our theological understanding of body), this is powerful stuff, and compellingly shows why (among other reasons) we don’t agree with (the supposed view of) Rome of procreation as sex’s sole purpose.

However, none of that theology actually challenged the “default posture” in my thinking about human sexuality (ie, same sex erotic desire).

The one sentence that did so challenge, me, however, was: “In a church that accepts the legitimacy of contraception, the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely … on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous biblical texts….”

OK, I have blogged on Richard Hays’ (Duke Divinity School NT scholar) work on homosexuality here.

Hays addresses, very profoundly, the relevant Biblical material on homosexual relations, and I find it very compelling. He comes down at a place that is, I think, utterly responsible and charitable, and yet pretty “traditional,” especially by the standards of The Episcopal Church. (BTW, I am 99% sure that NT Wright basically agrees with Hays’ on this issue completely.)

Hays, who takes the authority of Scripture quite seriously (as does historic Anglicanism), ends up saying that, on the basis of Scripture, the church ought not to be ordaining practicing homosexuals to the presbyterate and the episcopate.

Apparently Rowan sees this as fundamentalist. I have spent many years thinking about fundamentalism, and it is not clear to me that this is the case.

I would love to discuss these biblical texts — and how and why they do or don’t matter — in greater depth.

Having said all this, however, here are three ways in which Rowan challenged me:

  • He forced me to go back to the three NT texts (other than Rom 1) which are regularly brought out for the traditional position (Acts 15:28-29;I Cor 6:9-11; I Tim 1:10). I can now see that the Acts passage (with its use of pornea) is probably irrelevant to this issue.
  • He forced me to think more deeply about our Reformed understanding that “Scripture interprets Scripture.” In this understanding, we elucidate relatively obscure passages by use of relatively clear ones. My question is now: “Which are the clear doctrines: the three passages listed above, or all the biblical contexts Rowan brings out in his article (what God’s instructions to Hosea imply about human sexual desire, risk, and reciprocity; Paul’s instructions on giving our bodies to the other; etc.)?
  • While it is pretty clear to me that Hays’ work in this area is not fundamentalist, I do need to consider whether it is abstract. His material on his friend Gary, however, strongly suggests to me that it is not. (But I want to make sure.)
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Ecclesial Revision in the Book of Acts

In our study of the book of Acts (which meets on Sunday afternoons at St. Mark’s in Austin) we have waded through many details. We have “gotten down and dirty” and delved into the gritty particulars of the story.

Because we have engaged in this hard work, I think we are now in a position to begin to discern some larger patterns in the narrative (what Alfred North Whitehead called “a simplicity on the far side of complexity”).  One of these patterns which we have seen and discussed repeatedly is the outward expansion of the Jesus movement from Jerusalem, through “Judea and Samaria” (1:8), to Rome, a city which embodies “the ends of the earth” or the outer reaches of the realm of the Gentiles or the “Greeks.”

Presupposed by this theme is the more basic one of “Jewish versus Gentile,” which, again, we have discussed deeply and widely.

But these two themes (outward expansion to the ends of the earth and the cultural tensions between Jew and Greek) are connected to a third: revision of the predecessor religion of the people of the God of the Jewish Scriptures.

The church today is full of people who advocate revision of various kinds. (One thinks of the issue of “open communion” as well as the ordination / consecration of openly homosexual presbyters and bishops.)

There are, however, two kinds of revisionists (at least potentially or in theory): there are those who, in their advocacy for change, are motivated by and rely upon sources external to the tradition (for example, the values of our Western, secular, post-Enlightenment culture) and those who are motivated by and rely upon sources within the tradition of Christianity or, within that, of Anglicanism.

While it does seem to me that revisionists of the first kind are fundamentally misguided right from the start, it nevertheless remains the case that there is a place for revision within the Christian tradition. In fact, the case can be stated much more strongly: the religion of the New Covenant in Christ is itself a drastic, radical, and shocking revision of something prior.  The process of this revision, in fact, lies at the heart of the story told in the book of the Acts of the Apostles.

Given this, it seems that a revisionist can rightly analogize from the revision narrated in Acts to other revisions which might be needed today. (Henry de Lubac, in fact, thinks this way in chapter VII  of his Catholicism. See here.) This would be the second kind of revision, motivated by and relying upon sources inherent to the tradition. Unlike secular revision, this kind should be respected and deeply engaged with.

The book of Acts, in fact, provides us with a set of criteria for revision in the Church. How did it come about that the Gentiles were included in the New Covenant of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures without having to become Jewish (ie, without having to be circumcised and having to observe the other ceremonial and cultic practices of the Jewish people such as festival keeping and various food laws)?

There are several factors which hold in the narrative, and which the text is at pains to emphasize, in the developments narrated in Acts:

1.    Confirmation by the larger body.
2.    Confrontation by undeniable phenomena (ie, Gentiles speaking in tongues).
3.    Scandalous, uncontrollable surprise.

These three factors will be elaborated upon in upcoming posts.

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The Social Dimension of the Mind of Christ

Chapter 7 of James Finley’s book Christian Meditation, about which I have blogged much, is called “Entering the Mind of Christ.” This is another aspect of what is going on in Christian meditation, or contemplative prayer.

Finley writes that the practice of disciplined contemplation (which at one place he describes as “the intimate understanding of the texture of my own heart as feelings play across its surface, flow through it, and alter its state from one moment to the next”) gives us an awareness of our unity not just with God but with our fellow human person:

It takes time, but little by little we enter the social dimension of the mind of Christ in awakening to how perfectly one we are with everyone living and dead. As this awareness slowly seeps in, we are able to grow, day by day, into a more patient, gracious recognition and acceptance of and gratitude for others. Little by little the graciousness of Christ’s empathetic mind of oneness with others is translated into a thousand little shifts in the way we think about people, our attitudes toward them, and the way in which we actually treat them day by day. (page 195)

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Tanner on Open Communion in the Episcopal Church

What follows is a summary of the article of “In Praise of Open Communion: A Rejoinder to James Farwell” by Kathryn Tanner which appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of the Anglican Theological Review. I wrote this piece for my “God and Creation” class at the Seminary of the Southwest.

In this article Kathryn Tanner attempts to respond to James Farwell’s article which argues against the practice of open communion in the Episcopal Church. The article is, indeed a rejoinder to Farwell.
Her initial foray into what turns out to be the bulk of her argument is that, while Farwell is correct in pointing out that many or most advocates of open communion, following the consensus of the Jesus Seminar, deny the historicity of the account of Jesus’ Last Supper meal with his disciples, this move need not be made by advocates of open communion. Rather, all that must be argued is that the last supper account be read in light of Jesus’ larger food ministry, both his lavish, unconditionally inclusive table fellowship with sinners and outcasts, as well as his ministry of feeding the crowds. When one does this one quickly realizes that the last supper is not really that different from the latter: in both cases Jesus is dining with sinners (in the case of the last supper, with a Christ-denier and a Christ-betrayer) who are ill-informed about Jesus and his Kingdom designs and purposes. Tanner thinks that this undermines Farwell’s argument, since she thinks, for reasons unknown to this writer, that Farwell’s argument relies on the commitment of the participants in the Eucharist as well as their status as well-informed. (This is not Farwell’s argument.)
Tanner also accuses Farwell of portraying the Eucharist as nourishment for mission, but this, she says, encourages “the corrupting disjunction between worship and mission to which Christians everywhere seem prone.”
While Farwell does not claim that baptism is about commitment, Tanner does make this claim, by emphasizing that the baptismal covenant calls for radical commitment on the part of the baptized. (But what about the repetition of the baptismal covenant by the already baptized? one is led to ask.) Because of this, and because the 79 prayer book supposedly sees baptism and eucharist as part of a larger, complex rite of initiation, one can argue that the Eucharist, in giving the person the shape of the Christian life, can precede and prepare for Baptism.
One way of seeing what Tanner is trying to do here: she is applying the same “logic” which the framers of the 79 prayer book used for baptism (in our post-Constantinian context) to the eucharist. If the wider world is no longer Christian, there are many reasons to admit them directly to the table, she thinks.

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Farwell on Open Communion in the Episcopal Church

What follows is a summary of the article “Baptism, Eucharist, and the Hospitality of Jesus: On the Practice of ‘Open Communion'” by James Farwell which appeared Spring 2004 issue of the Anglican Theological Review. I wrote this piece for my “God and Creation” theology class at the Seminary of the Southwest.

In the first, introductory section of the article Farwell summarizes the basic argument which advocates of open communion put forth. The line of reasoning  goes something like this: “(the historical) Jesus would not have engaged in a ritual meal which in any way excluded anyone, and therefore it is unfaithful to the example of Jesus to do so. On the contrary, the Jesus of history went around and scandalized the Jewish leaders of his day by feasting lavishly with ‘sinners:’ prostitutes, tax collectors, and outcasts. The practice of ‘closed communion’ in which baptism is a ‘gateway’ to the table is exclusionary in a way which contradicts the gospel of Jesus.” Farwell, however, views this is a prima facie argument which lacks systematic rigor and makes arbitrary presuppositions, which need further scrutiny and clarification, especially given so central a matter for the life of the Christian Church. Farwell suggests that the failure to engage in this deeper reflection might lead us to give in to the dangerous “the seduction of relevancy.”

In the second section of the article, “The Argument for Open Communion,” Farwell digs deeper into one  of these presuppositions, namely that “the restriction of the eucharist to the baptized was not an early practice, and, therefore, is insupportable,” a claim made by the Jesus Seminar, seen in the work, for example, of John Dominic Crossan.
Farwell responds to this claim in the third section by saying that, according to many biblical historians such as John Koenig,  “it is not clear that the origins of the eucharist cannot reside with Jesus” (italics his, 220-221). Many scholars, for example, argue that “open meal ministry and the more focused supper with the disciples lie alongside one another in a non-dualistic relationship.” (221) It is true, Farwell grants, that Paul’s teaching on the common meal in I Corinthians does not explicitly state the necessity of baptism; however, “there is in the … passage a clear logic of participation” which requires that at least two conditions be met in order to “participate in the table of the Lord” (I Cor 10:21), the “Lord’s supper” (I Cor 11:20): embrace of “the little ones and the outsiders,” and forsaking idolatry.  This law of participation, which is for St. Paul participation in “the future that animated Jesus himself,” is “consistent with” the practice of baptism. (223) If all of this is so, then the post-apostolic documentary evidence (Farwell quotes from the Didache 9.5; Justin Martyr’s First Apology, Cyril of Jerusalem’s Mystagogical Catechesis, Theodore of Mopsuetia’s Third Baptismal Homily, and Augustine’s Sermon 272) must be reconsidered not necessarily as “the accretion of ecclesiastical exclusivity,” but rather “the deepening of the participatory logic of the NT: eucharist completes the initiation and fires the remembrance of the disciple in a pattern of life suitable to the kingdom, to which he or she has joined himself or herself in baptism” (223).  This logic characterizes participation in the death of Christ (I Cor 11:26) and so it is perhaps “disingenuous to offer this meal as if it requires nothing but the desire to participate out of curiosity, custom, or an unformed sense of spiritual longing, however sincere” (224).
In the next section of the essay, Farwell argues that “there is a classic soteriology enacted in the connection of baptism and eucharist on which the practice of open communion may have a serious impact” (228) by spelling out the “both – and” theology of baptism and eucharist. Taken together, they narrate or display both the “gift” aspect of the Christian life  and the discipleship aspect of the Christian life.  It is true that baptism explicitly centers on and embodies more of the gift element, but it also set forth the trajectory and the content of the Christian life of discipleship and obedience (as, for example, is seen in our Baptismal Covenant). Baptism “carries the weight of clarifying the life for which eucharist strengthens us,” something which the eucharist does not do in an explicit way. Rather, it is as if the eucharist is “the performed shorthand for this divine life that we both receive and adopt through baptism” (emphasis his, 226). In other words, the eucharist presupposes baptism since it is there where the content of the Christian life is most fully described.  The eucharist fortifies us and nourishes us to live the life we were initiated in by baptism. But “open communion threatens to short-circuit this enacted “both-and” soteriology of the sacraments by collapsing the entire practice in the direction of divine gift.” (227)

Next Farwell deals with two pastoral issues. He notes that, when it comes to folks wanting to approach the Altar in Communion, there is a huge pastoral opportunity to shepherd people through the whole ordeal of dealing with desire or longing. If, however, we simply and hastily bring them to the table, we cheaply shortchange them of the opportunity to learn from their longing(s). Second, Farwell suggests that advocates of open communion are falling into our modern society’s priority of the individual, a priority which leads to the loss of the common good. This, too, presents a pastoral issue which is shortchanged if we simply rush ahead with open communion.
Finally, boundaries can be hospitable: “good fences make good neighbors.” Farwell’s point is analogous to my saying that it would be inhospitable for me to invite every stranger who knocks on the front door of my house to spend the night with my wife and me in our marriage bed.

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The Moral Tradition of Virtue (Part I): Priority of the Social

Last semester I had the opportunity to do an independent study with Nathan Jennings at the Seminary of the Southwest in the moral tradition of virtue in Christianity. I felt that this tradition was something almost completely eclipsed in my Reformed theological training at Westminster Theological Seminary. I am grateful for the opportunity to engage in this study, which follows. For the introduction to this essay see here.

First, we recognize in each of these civilizations, a certain priority of the social. That is, the particular traits of personality or character which come to be prized in a given culture are rooted in the social arrangement of the time, along with the specific roles which accompany that arrangement. So, for example, in the heroic civilization described and narrated in the epic poems of Homer,  we find those qualities which make for an effective warrior are valued: loyalty (to kin), courage, and strength (principally physical strength). The warrior is the glue, you might say, which binds the society together, and so the virtues of the role of soldier  come to be seen (by Homer as well as his later ancient interpreters) as the highest virtues – at least in that particular society and culture – of the human moral life.

In fifth-century Athens, however, nothing could be more formative on the moral vision of Plato, Aristotle and the various schools (Stoicism, Skepticism) than the establishment of the democratic city state of Athens. Here a different politics, a different “prior social arrangement,” is going on other than that of Homer’s kinship-based, warrior society. Writes MacIntyre:

For Homeric man there could be no standard external to those embodied in the structures of his own community to which appeal could be made; for Athenian man, the matter is more complex. His understanding of the virtues does provide him with standards by which he can question the life of his own community and enquire whether this or that practice or policy is just. Nonetheless he also recognizes that he possesses his understanding of the virtues only because his membership in the community provides him with such understanding. The city is a guardian, a parent, a teacher, even though what is learnt from the city may lead to a questioning of this or that feature of its life.

No longer does the common good of the society depend primarily upon the warrior’s effective performance of his role. Here, in fifth century Athens, a different role is required with different standards, or excellencies, of performance. What matters now more than a society full of good warriors is a society full of good citizens, together with the different social role which accompanies the citizen.

This social situation gives rise the particular values of fifth century Athens. Hence young men were enrolled in various schools and academic formation societies in order to cultivate the virtues of   rhetoric (on the more pragmatic side) and justice (on the more theoretical side). Again, the four “cardinal virtues” of justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude (among others) were seen as foundational to the well being of the city state.
With the rise of medieval Christendom, however, we find a radically different social situation. Gone are the days of classical Athens and its counterpart, that cultural echo which is the city of Rome. In this new political reality, several factors come into play to create a different kind of, and a different conception of, social space. First, no longer is the polis, as classically conceived, becomes the primary locus of one’s committed loyalty. Rather, there is a new city in town, that city set on a hill, the politeuma  of the church, together with her sister city, the Christian kingdom. In these overlapping communities a different set of excellencies, a different set of aretai, is valued, encouraged, and cultivated.

Second, in medieval Christendom, for example the span of Thomas Aquinas’ life in thirteenth century France, the church and the civilization of which it is the center is being challenged and confronted by Islam. This new cultural situation gives rise to the need for mission, and in response St. Thomas writes his Summa Contra Gentiles. Here we see an example of how the values of the community are not just for the purposes of the community itself, but also for its expansion, its social mission to the world.

Third, the Europe just before St. Thomas’ time is a Europe now getting the first tastes of the literature of classical antiquity mediated through a kind of proto-Renaissance. As MacIntyre points out, this widespread confrontation served as a social crisis of a different kind, one which forced the society how to deal with challenges from a pagan (ie, not just Muslim) world view . Such a social challenge was utterly new, nothing of its kind having occurred either in classical Greece or in its predecessor culture.

This new social situation gives rise to the particular values of medieval Christendom, values needed for the survival and bene esse of the Christian church community. Faith, hope, charity are at the top of the list of virtues required for the collective eudaimonia of the Christian church, which is why Thomas borrowed them from I Corinthians 13 and with them adorned the more secular virtues of Aristotle and the classical tradition.

We see, then, that each of these three predecessor cultures to modernity share a common feature: their social setting conditions the human character traits which it values. But the point is actually deeper than this: far from exhibiting a denial or even a nervousness of the social or political rootedness of moral discourse, these three predecessor cultures are willing openly to admit and celebrate this. And we are now in a position to show why that is: for all three of these civilizations, morality and the practice of morality was intended to serve the common good, the good of the whole community, in each of its different conceptions / configurations, respectively. And because the common telos of man / humanity is public, it is unitary in its public nature: we see no bifurcation – not in the narrative world of Homer, not in the city state of Athens, not in medieval Christendom – of the public and the private. If the private exists at all (a doubtful protasis), then it exists only for the sake of the public, for the sake of the commonweal, for the sake of the common good of all its members.

For Part II of this series go here.

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The Moral Tradition of Virtue: Introduction

Last semester I had the opportunity to do an independent study with Nathan Jennings at the Seminary of the Southwest in the moral tradition of virtue in Christianity. I felt that this tradition was something almost completely eclipsed in my Reformed theological training at Westminster Theological Seminary. I am grateful for the opportunity to engage in this study, which follows.

Within what Anglicans call the Apocryphal / Deuterocanonical books of Scripture, in the book of I Maccabees, we read in the first chapter that, after many years of Jewish struggle to maintain its own faithful identity in the context of Gentile rule,  that “certain renegades … from Israel … built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined themselves with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil.”

“What hath Jerusalem to do with Athens?” asked the African church father Tertullian in the early third century. According to the narrative perspective of I Maccabees, the answer is clear: absolutely nothing.
And yet this paper, investigating antique (ie, pagan) virtue is not written from the perspective of Jerusalem. Rather it is written from the perspective of Antioch, or of Rome, or of Canterbury. For Christianity is not merely Jewish, any more than it is merely Gentile.

And so in this paper we are perhaps asking, “What does Rome  have to do with Jerusalem and Athens?” For an answer to this question which is at once historical and theological we will turn to St. Thomas Aquinas. But before we do that, we will rely on Alisdair MacIntyre to guide us through times and seasons before and after St. Thomas. For what precedes Thomas – what he inherits and baptizes – is a rich and complex tradition of virtue. According to MacIntyre, this tradition has its primative origins in the ancient culture which MacIntyre calls “heroic” (primarily the narrative – epic and saga – world of Homer as well as those of other lands such as Ireland, Iceland, and Germany). It then finds its touchstone in the developments of fifth century Athens of Socrates, Plato, Sophocles, and especially Aristotle.  This tradition is then translated into Latin (with Cicero and Boethius playing mediating roles) and inherited (and sometimes rejected) by medieval theologians in the eleventh and twelfth centuries such as Peter  Abelard and Thomas Aquinas.

These three predecessor cultures – primieval heroic culture, fifth-century Athens, and medieval Christendom – are important as the backdrop to modernity. For in modernity the plot thickens, as the tradition is apparently discarded by such thinkers as Descartes and Kant. I say “apparently discarded” because, as MacIntyre crucially points out, most modern thinkers (including the profoundly Christian Kierkegaard) retain many fragments of theology from this predecessor tradition while at the same time both living in a radically new social situation lacking the social and political soil in which the previous world view had grown up, and rejecting many of the philosophical and theological bases in which these very retained fragments are rooted. This situation – retaining traditional concepts like “God” or “love” while rejecting their foundations or reasons – gives rise to moral incoherence, especially when accompanied by the complex rise of pluralism, in which many different communities of voices and cultures of voices pick and choose and arrange their fragments from the past differently. MacIntyre calls this state of moral confusion “emotivism.”

As I inquire into the nature of this moral tradition of virtue, however, I do so not simply as some generic Christian, but rather as a member of the particular tradition of Anglicanism. What, if anything, does Anglicanism think of this tradition of virtue? Has it received and developed it, or simply rejected it? Is this premodern tradition in need of retrieval within Anglicanism? To begin to answer these questions, we will examine and evaluate the work of 20th century Anglican moral theologian Kenneth Kirk. What is going on in his work from the point of view of the virtue tradition (with Alisdair MacIntyre as a prime interpreter, representative, and advocate)?

Before we turn to an evaluation of Anglican moral thought embodied in the thought of Kenneth Kirk, however, we need to look more closely at these three predecessor cultures to modernity. Instead of looking simply at the differences between these three cultures and civilizations, let us examine what they share, what they hold in common. When we do this, we find three broad overlapping features, more or less shared among them: (what I will call) a priority of sociology, a practice of philosophy, and a presupposition of anthropology.

See here for Part I of this series.

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Summary of Gregory of Nyssa’s “On Not Three Gods”

In this essay (a letter, actually) Gregory is arguing against those who say there are three deities.

I.    Some argue for three deities based on the idea of deity (that is, what Father, Son and HS have in common) as essence or ousia.

  • This argument is based on analogy with the way we speak of human persons, or in this case, of men. The argument is that we can refer to “Peter, James, and Paul” because of what they all three have in common: man-ness. So what is going on here is that they are being referred to as individuals by reference to what they have in common.
  • But this is actually problematic or misleading (though it would be futile to try to change the way we speak) and though this linguistic problem is relatively inconsequential for created things like men or pens, it matters supremely when we are speaking of God. What is going on here that the individual things are being referred to by their (common) nature.
  • Gregory’s argument runs something like this. I might say “I have three pens in my backpack.” But formally speaking that is not actually correct. I don’t have three distinct essences of pen-ness in my backpack; I actually have three distinct participants in  or intstantiations of  “pen-ness” in my backpack. The essence of ousia of God is like “pen-ness,” and the hypostases of God are like the individual “things” which are subsumed under the category “pen” or “pen-ness.”
  • To employ another analogy. Consider matter or materiality. If in my backpack I have three items: a pen, a rock, and a ball, I don’t say that I have “three matters” in my backpack. (It would even be a bit strange to say that I have “three materials” in my backpack.) It would be more formally correct to say “I have three material objects” in my backpack: three distinct hypostases, all of which participate in materiality or matter.

II.    Some argue for three deities based on the idea of deity (that is, what Father, Son, and HS have in common) as operation or act or energeia. But this cannot be the case because we know that all of God’s actions are shared or indivisible. We know this in two ways:

  1. In Scripture we see that all of God’s actions are one. Father sees (Ps 84:9); Son sees (Mt 9:4); Spirit sees (Acts 5:3).
  2. In our Christian experience we see that all of God’s actions are one. I have one “crown of free gifts,” one graciously given life which is from Father, Son & Spirit. I don’t have three lives, and so it must be the case Father, Son, & Holy Spirit are jointly at work in this activity of bestowing life to me.
  • Therefore, even if one conceives of deity as operation / energeia (and we know that all our categories fall short of the infinite God, cf 152), one still must admit that there are not three deities.
  • Note: Gregory’s argument here concerning the operations or actions of God, it seems to me, presupposes the neoplatonic principle that  energeia is revelatory of essence (see here).
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Florensky & Pickstock (indirectly, perhaps) on the Trinity

In “Letter II” of his The Pillar and Ground of the Truth one of the things Paval Florensky is actually doing is providing some arguments, based in reason (as opposed to revelation) for the Christian doctrine of God as Trinity.

He does this in part by arguing negatively against secular ways of “knowing:” “The knowledge that Pilate (in John 18) lacked, the knowledge which all mankind lacks is above all the conditions of certitude.”

He then considers three basic attempts people have made to try to attain these “conditions of certitude:” the sensuous-empirical, the transcendental-rationalist, and the subconscious-mystical.

All pretensions to certainty, be they sensuous-empirical, transcendental-rationalist, or subconscious-mystical, are ultimately only asserting that something is given. “My sense perception is my sense perception. The sun shines because the sun shines.” This, in turn, reduces down to A=A, which is givenness in general. This tautology pretends to be necessary and universal, but in actually, in space and time, it destroys being. If A=A, then not-A=not-A, and so A comes to be defined in terms of not-not-A. So all connection between things, including the connection of being, is destroyed. Hence, tautology, A=A, destroys all being and rationality.

“Where there is no difference, there can be no connection.” Enter Pickstock, who argues that “context is everything,” that meaning comes in connections. (Hence the senselessness and the nihilism of asyndeton.)

“Where there is no difference, there can be no connection. There is therefore only the blind force of stagnation and self-imprisonment, only egotism. Outside of itself, every I hates every I, and, hating, I strives to exclude every not-I from the sphere of being. And even the I hates itself, I, over time: the present I hates the past I, etc.”

This state of senselessness is an unavoidable antinomy of human ratioality, which Florensky describes another way: “… it turns out that the rational is at the same time unexplainable. To explain A is to reduce it to “something else,” to not-A, to that which is not A and which therefore is not-A. But if A really is satisfies the demand of rationality, it it is really rational, ie, absolutely self-identical, then it is unexplainable, irreducible to “something else”…. Therefore, A is absolutely non-reasonable, blind A, opaque to reason.

Florensky is saying that real things, reality, life, is inot in accord with “rationality,” but with reason, by which he surely means (something like or related to) logos, the divine logos.

The alternative to A=A is indirect discursis of reason, which posits a chain, a regression of reasons, which either “dream of eternity” or ends in God. But this is only marginally better than the above.

One is an impenetrable wall; the other an uncrossable sea.
What does all this have to do with the Trinity? Florensky’s critique of these three rational systems does not hold for the doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity does not simply reduce down to A=A. Florensky shows, that when the church Fathers (surely he has in mind the Cappedocian Fathers) said that God is one ousia but three hypostases, they were in effect saying that A=A and that A=notA.

Are the things in the world connected? This, the problem of the one and the many, is the age-old problem of philosophy. Florensky’s ultimate answer is going to be: “Yes, the things in the world are connected, because the “things” or the hypostases in God are connected. This connection, in the language of ontology and metaphysics, is called essence or ousia. But, as we have seen above, in order for there to be such a connection there also must be difference. And, in God, there is: three distinct persons, three distinct hypostases in harononious plenitude.

Pickstock is correct: context is everything; meaning is in the connections.

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Pickstock & McLaren on Liturgy & Art

Brian McLaren, who will soon be speaking at my the Seminary of the Southwest here in Austin soon, suggests that worship is art. He rightly states that “there is a huge difference between propoganda and art. Art says, ‘Hey, I’m telling the truth as I see it. And the truth might not be pretty.’”

Much of what McLaren says here is good and true, it seems to me. He is right to call out “the worship industry” in its propaganda-like consumerism, displayed in its attempts to create a pre-packaged “experience” for “worshippers.”

He is right to imply that for an artist to pander to people’s consumeristic desires cheapens her art.

However, worship is not reducible down to art; worship is not art. Worship and liturgy may contain esthetic qualities, and it is and should be beautiful. In The Pillar and Ground of the Truth Pavel Florensky describes Russian startsky’s as “connoisseurs of beauty.” However liturgy is not artistic expression.

I have been searching for an example to show how this is the case, and today Catherine Pickstock gave it to me. In her article “Asyndeton: Syntax and Insanity,” she praises writers like Joyce and Pound for their use of disorder in their writing in order to depict the disorder of the fragmented, modern world around them. In doing this they were consummate artists. This is good and true artistic expression. It is beautiful in its truthfulness (as McLaren would say).

However, what if the liturgy were to attempt to mirror this cultural disorder by itself becoming disordered? In fact this very thing has (unwittingly, perhaps) been attempted in the modern church, as Pickstock labors to point out in this article. Twentieth-century Anglican revisions of the Creed have used asyndetic syntax in the attempt to make the Creed more palatable or acceptable to the modern worshipper. (Hmmm … this actually sounds like what McLaren rightly critiques above: the desire to pander to the consummeristic urges of modern people.)

But not only is this bad art; it is damaging to the people, for it distorts the true purpose of worship and liturgy. Unlike art, the purpose of the liturgy is not to prompt people to reflect more deeply on the world around them, as noble a purpose though this be.  (This might, however, be a purpose of preaching.) Rather, the purpose of the liturgy is to put people into participatory contact with the transcendent God. And this is something which art – no matter how good – can never do.

I am yet again forced to the conclusion that the problem with “the emergent church” is the way it thinks (to the extent that this movement is a monolithic “it”) about liturgy and worship. It has many good things to say about art. And yet, there are lots of good artists and philosophers out there who can teach us about art.

Teaching about art is not the primary role of the church. The role of the church, again, is to enact the ritual, liturgical participation in God, which is, as Alexander Schmemann tells us, the life of the world.

This is something that artists cannot do. It is something that only the church can do.

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++Rowan on Scripture (Theology Class #2)

Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology,  “The Discipline of Scripture” (ch5)

In this chapter Rowan Williams argues that the discipline required by the Church in order to read Scripture aright is the discipline of time spent with the text of Scripture in the context of the church’s liturgical practice, its lectionary which is connected to the festal cycle of the Church, supremely the Paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ. Patiently waiting upon Scripture, with all its internal conflicts and challenges, is necessary for the church in general, but it has never been more urgent than today, when we (the church) find ourselves struggling deeply with the same conflicts which are plaguing the world around us.

The key word here is “time.” What Rowan is trying to do in this article is in many ways to show how our (the Church’s) reading of Scripture is like, is analogous to, Scripture itself: it is a diachronic process, much to the chagrin, perhaps, of recent reactions to the higher criticism of the previous generation of high modernity, reactions which, even if quite close to Rowan’s own orthodox views (one thinks of canonical criticism a la Brevard Childs), have tended to eclipse the time-bound nature of the narrative in favor of a synchronic reading of the text in which the only “time” acknowledged is the “eternal present” of the reader. Synchronic readings “spatialize” something which is intended to flow through time; they spatialize the narrative of redemptive history.

It is somewhat ironic that Rowan in this article is defending the more explicitly modern ways of reading Scripture such as source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, as well as their modern, positivistic “kissing cousin,” fundamentalism, with its would be “univocal descriptions and exact representation of particular sequences of ‘fact.’” (48)  And yet, at least these approaches (the nonfundamentalist ones, that is) maintain that readers must be attentive to the difficulties and struggles within the text. Unlike the tendencies of some types of canonical and literary approaches, these hermeneutic strategies refuse any easy unity or harmony of the text.

And yet, all of the above modern approaches fail to appropriate and develop the medieval hermeneutic which we see in the sensus litteralis of, for example, St. Thomas Aquinas. It is true that for Thomas this literal sense is primary, but for him the literal sense includes not just the record of the events wrought by God in history, but along with that all kinds of complex human workings such as metaphor and perspective. So where the higher critics of modernity (and the positivistic fundamentalists) fall short of Thomas is in their reduction of historiography down to the something positivistic, but where the literary types (in reaction to the former) err is at the deeper level of the priority of the historical or temporal nature of the text, its “messy” duration through time. For Thomas as well as for Rowan, this must be primary, in a nonreductionistic way.

One way in which we see the fecundity of this medieval approach is that it posits an analogy between the development of the text of Scripture itself though and my (or our) own development through time in our faith journeys. As Rowan puts it, “The time of the text is recognizably continuous with my time.” (49) Synchronic readings, again however, tend to overlook this.
If the Bible’s movement through time mirrors our own movement through-time, then we can also pattern our own reading of the Bible on its movement through time. Hence the festal lectionary of the Church. There is an “analogy of duration between us and the text.” (50)

The use of a scriptural lectionary bound to the festal cycle is “a major mediation of the sensus litteralis,” since the latter includes not just a dramatic mode of exegesis but also a public performance, a “taking of time now for the presentation of the time of the text.” (51)

As we live the Passion narrative(s) during Holy Week, it is as if we don’t know the ending. We enter into the thick of risk and open-endedness. And we have been doing this before the advent of modern criticism: the church has always had, read, and celebrated the confrontational discussion going on between the four Gospels, for example.

Now, modern critical scholars may be correct to emphasize the ideological disputes between, say J, D, and P in the Hebrew Bible. However, as Rowan has already suggested, the pre-modern community of believers had long before modernity accepted and canonized such diversity of voices and agendas Ruth versus Ezra on the issue of cross-cultural marriage; Chronicles versus Kings on the presentation of various kings (or even kingship itself), to take just two examples.  So this cacophony of voices which leads us into discussion and group struggle, has already been embraced by the community of faith. If anything, higher criticism only underlines a point which has already been made.

And if this is so, if this kind of “diachronic” conflict is built into Scripture, then our (individual and corporate) reading of the same ought to be shaped in analogy to this pattern. This means that we can only discern the “inner reality” of Scripture through time spent hearing, considering, and interacting with all the voices in the text over time: seeing and meditating upon the issues, the connections, the questions raised. So, again, our reading of the text takes place diachronically, over or through time. Reading deeply and faithfully takes time.

Where, then, does the unity and coherence of Scripture come from? It comes from its community of readers: not so much that this community simply invents its own meaning, but rather the meaning comes from the connection, or the analogy, that exists between this diachronic narrative we have been considering and the self-identifying practices of the church which it precisely does and did not invent. We are talking about the central things which give this community its identity: baptism and eucharist, which point to the death and resurrection of Christ. Jesus, the crucified and risen Christ, is the hermeneutic key to Scripture, and not some abstract Jesus, but the Jesus who is embodied, and whose life is reenacted, in the church.

In order not to lose this meaning and this identity, we must participate in this same diachronic struggle which we see in Scripture, even as we read it together. It is in the difficulty of the struggle, the risk, the cost, the disappointment, that we open ourselves as the church to Christ, and grasp the possibility of speaking Christ into the world. Far from a cheap pluralism (and the advocates of cheap pluralism do abound), however, we all must remain open to the judgment of the Paschal mystery.

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“Ascension” – Acts 1:9-11 (Class #5: 2-9-09)

Here is the outline for class #5 in our Acts study at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Austin, TX.  The title of the course is “A New Kind of Conquest” (see blog categories below). For the outline of Acts we are using, see here, and for more info please contact Matt.

(Once again I am encouraged by the depth of the discussion last night, as we discussed the meaning of the ascension (“stage 2” of the resurrection) of King Jesus.)

“Ascension”

I. Cosmology of “Heaven and Earth”

A. Gen 1:1 – “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Hendiadys for the whole creation.

B. “Heaven is “God’s Dimension or realm,” not “where you go when you die.”

C. The whole narrative of Scripture, including the resurrection and the ascension (and the incarnation!), is about the coming-together of “heaven” and “earth.”

D. St. Thomas Aquinas on the human person: “a rational animal.” Kind of like animals (body), and kind of like angels (disembodied souls). Human being as nexus of “heaven” and “earth.”

II. Scriptural (ie, OT) Precedent: Dan. 7:9-14 & “The Ancient of Days”

A. Daniel would have been in people’s minds due to the “abomination of desolation” text we have discussed in connection of the sacriledge of Antiochus Epiphanes IV.

B. “… coming on the clouds.” Typology of cloud in OT.

III. Greco-Roman Precedent: “ascensions” of Caesars.

Arch of Titus: souls of emperors going up to heaven.

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