Saturday, April 5, 2008

Coffee Break - Saturday a.m.

So much to read and digest, so little time. Life will be crazier than usual for me in the next couple weeks, between the onset of high school track season and club outdoor soccer (aka football) and the special tasks for the day job, including preparing for an upcoming conference and presentation (which will allow me to get away from my desk, travel to a great city, and sit in hotel conference rooms all day for days on end). But for now, let me just note the following:

Andrian Worsfield (Pluralist Speaks) has a brilliant essay up on Rowan Williams' second Lent lecture on Faith and Politics. Someday I would really like to weigh in on it myself, but Adrian has not only hit the important points but has some tremendous insights of his own that are well worth reading.

Mimi (and her ghost runner Doug!) has alerted everyone to a terrific opinion piece, "Who is the Real Patriot" by Lawrence Korb and Ian Moss featured at the Chicago Tribune.

Clumber, besides having his usual fun with the high and mighty, has this bit on what I would call Blind Ambition. Although I would quibble about the source of the information (Jerry Zeifman - a Vince Foster conspiracy theorist, and someone who circulated this story years ago in a book now out of print) and some of its spin, I think it does point to the source of some of Hillary's problems with ethics. I'd love to riff about John Dean, Hillary, and Watergate, what it is like to be a young lawyer, especially among politicians, and maybe even the judge I clerked for, who was with the Justice Department during part of the Nixon administration, but... well, another time maybe.

Finally, I'm sorry no one at Jake's really wanted to engage on PB Katharine's video but I do recognize the difficulty of talking about that kind of poetic, inspirational sermon. I, do, however, also think there are some important ideas in there as well about thought, action, belief, and, above all, hubris in relationship to what religion should really be about. And then... well, the poetry. The dead fish, of course, but also... I dunno.... something about the physics near the beginning made me think of the bit in the musical Camelot (thinking Richard Harris movie version) about Merlin teaching Arthur to fly high as a hawk so he could see land without boundaries, etc.

(Someday I'll learn not to say "Finally" in hopes I'll cut things short!]

There is the business about the Va. court ruling. As an Episcopalian and a lawyer I feel I should say something. Blogging is self-indulgent enough -- seems to me one should pay back the free forum, in a sense, by occasionally writing about something one really knows something about (or could without much effort). But... I'm afraid that much that I might have to say would be pessimistic and, at least for that reason, unhelpful. OCICBW, and in this case, I hope that will prove true. Maybe when the dust has settled, I might find something helpful to say after all, but... for now it's off to the high school track in the cold and mist and rain. Should be good to clear the head, at least.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Self-justified Truth

"The self-justified truth claim, whether religious or otherwise, is the source of all violence" -- Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

This is extraordinary, this sermon. Real, important stuff (my highest rating, FWIW).

If you haven't seen it already, please take a few minutes and go to Against Faith Sanctioned Violence at the Episcopal Cafe and watch/listen to the video of the sermon, which was given during the opening services for this year's Trinity Institute Theological Conference, "An Interfaith Dialogue on Religion and Violence."

Notes from this side of the Pond

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori:
Incarnation begins here at the well, in a wise and willing maid. Yes, Wisdom’s child is brought forth from watery chaos and the terror of Mary’s “yes.” Wisdom’s child, present from the beginning of creation. Wisdom’s child, born that we might all have life abundant. That connection with wisdom is there in the gospels; Jesus is called Wisdom’s prophet and Wisdom’s child, but it’s not a strand much emphasized in Western theology.

Yet you and I, and followers of Jesus throughout the ages have found life abundant in another fountain of wisdom – the one that flows from the side of the crucified one – which becomes birth fluid for the late-born children of wisdom’s prophet. In baptism, we too become children of wisdom. Mary’s “yes” at the fountain begins a new building of Wisdom’s earthly human house, and when he’s grown, Wisdom in Jesus bids us turn in and feast, “come eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.” Will you turn in here and join Wisdom’s feast?

The Orthodox have remembered the ancient understanding of Jesus as wisdom incarnate, conceived by a fountain of wisdom – and you can play with whether that means physical proximity or divine source. That ancient understanding is echoed in John’s prologue, the word present in the beginning, through whom all things came into being – wisdom, God’s master builder, present from before creation and working to bring creation into being – the dabar, the logos, the effective word which God speaks, the word that goes forth from God’s mouth, and does not return empty, but accomplishes the purpose for which God sent it.

The sign that God gives, the word that God offers, is a child, God with us, and as Proverbs puts it, “the words of his mouth are deep waters, the fountain of wisdom is a gushing stream” (Proverbs 18:4).

When we draw water from that fountain, when we drink deep and eat our fill of wisdom’s feast, we share in Mary’s “yes,” we begin to participate in that word of God, accomplishing what God intends. “Let it be with us according to your will.” Let us become your willing servants, vessels ready to be filled with God incarnate, that we may do your will. Let your word be spoken in us, that it may go forth and do your will. May your kingdom come, O lord, and may it begin again here.

The angel turns up right here, today, too, to lure us into pregnancy of God. It’s equal opportunity, my brothers and sisters – God’s fountain bathes us equally, without regard for gender. The word of God is waiting to be born of each one of us – that effective word, that wisdom of God that will create a new heaven and a new earth. Will you say yes? Will you nurture that word, and bring it to light?.
Excerpt from Sermon for the Feast of the Annunciation at St. Mary of the Virgin, NYC.

Not everyone's cup of tea, I imagine, but thank God for ++Katharine who is not afraid to speak in her own, unique voice, drawing from diverse strands of (yes, really!) - orthodox Christianity to use words and images that incorporate both female and male images, physical creation, including birth, water, and all of its glorious messiness, not just to speak to the wimmin but to all God's children. At times it sounds odd, but it is challenging and, as far as I am concerned, a welcome change of pace. The Presiding Bishop has assumed an office in which she has faithfully sought to represent and care for all, the insiders and the outsiders and everyone else, but it is refreshing that she has not taken the office to mean that she must assume the Piskie equivalent of Eastern Newsbroadcaster-speak (i.e. some kind of safe, generic, innocuous-sounding speech to insiders). She speaks with a new voice, of a gender and a background that is fresh and alive, coming from a real person who is in a remarkable third career in life -- first as marine biologist, second as priest, and third as bishop -- speaking of faith as if she and we have discovered it anew.

(photo courtesy of
Mad Priest)

Then there's this on the clergy vote in Wales against women bishops. Doug Blanchard ("Counterlight") nailed it when he addressed it in the larger context of secularization in the West when he said :

This is why secularism is the fastest growing denomination in the once famously religious USA, and why Europe remains predominantly secular.

The whole public discussion of religion, especially Christianity, has been dominated by right-wingers for a quarter century. Because of this, Christianity is made to appear backwards, a bastion of superstition and bigotry.

People find it ugly and repulsive, not because it refuses to gratify their selfishness, but on the contrary, because it offends their moral sense.

The long domination of Conservative Evangelicalism in this country (which appears, mercifully, to be coming to an end), has achieved the exact opposite of what it set out to do. It has only accelerated the long term trend of secularization.

I think Wales will eventually have women bishops, sooner rather than later.

As Christianity shrinks in Europe (and sadly, here), it becomes more and more the domain of the shrill fanatics left after reasonable people of good will are chased out.

What will bring back Christianity in the West is uncoupling it from right wing politics, and from long discredited segregation that the rest of the general public left behind a generation ago. Christianity will come back when churches stop trying to defend the indefensible.

Counterlight, commenting at Fr. Jake Stops the World (emphasis added).

And finally this, which I could not resist, from an essay on Episcopal polity and John Jewell’s Apology for the Church of England :
I remember sitting in a pub in Canterbury with several of the Cathedral Canons, and after the second pint, one said “You Americans need to get with the program and use the same polity as the rest of the Communion.” My response was something like, “Perhaps you forget, that there was a revolution in the colonies and I believe your side lost. And, as you tried to strangle the Episcopal Church baby in the cradle by withholding episcopal support, our friends, and your adversaries the Scots came to our aid." I added, rather snidely I fear, "The Church of England and the whole Communion, will, with in our children’s lifetime, adopt the Episcopal Church’s polity. My friends, if you think lay and ordained Episcopalians will give up their rights to vote on matters of import like electing their rectors and bishops, voting in General Convention and give them over to a bunch of bishops let alone primates, you are simply deluding yourselves!” Slurp, wipe the Guinness foam off my upper lip, “so there!”
from Howard Anderson's A New Step in the Reformation of Anglicanism at the Daily Episcopalian (yes, i picked out the apologetically snarky bit -- which, of course, I liked immensely -- but there was much more to this essay, so please read it all).

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Two Visions of Christianity

In reading about church and politics, I came across the following views of Christianity formulated by Mark Lilla in his recent book, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West. He finds that the early theological disputes in Christianity produced "two tendencies of Christian and moral thought that remain vital to this day." These consist of the following:
One tendency takes the basic goodness of the world as axiomatic, despite the presence of sin. It assumes that man, as a natural creature, is capable of good and therefor of improving himself and his social surroundings. . . . Whatever language or images they used, these Christian thinkers considered the natural world to be continuously blessed by God; they did not think of it as an alien, hostile, or abandoned place. Although man can do nothing without divine grace, it is not grace alone that operates through him, but also his own nature, which he is responsible for cultivating. . . . He is called through his free will to imitate Christ, who is moral exemplar. If he becomes evil, it is his own choice, though he can always be turned around. . . . Many things may contribute to man's moral improvement besides grace and revelation, including pagan philosophy. And that improvement does not happen suddenly, through conversion alone or a sudden infilling with the divine. It takes place gradually through effort in the world. That is why man should embrace worldly activity -- in work, study, politics, family, church -- and help to infuse all of them with the Holy Spirit. The willingness of God to condescend and become flesh, sharing our sufferings and our joys, should assure us that he still considers his creation to be good.

There is a second, and diametrically opposed, tendency in Christian moral and political thought, and it takes a much more skeptical attitude toward nature and man. It also expresses a worry having to do with human psychology. The worry is that if human beings become convinced that creation is basically good, they will conclude that they do not need grace. They will become, to use the Christian label for this heresy, Pelagians. The charge has to be taken seriously, for if man could indeed overcome the effects of the fall without divine help, if human life could be made self-sufficient in a good world, why would man need God? To cope with this possibility, many Christian thinkers over the centuries have emphasized the significance of Christ's departure and the persistent corruption of the world he left behind. To the extent that man is a natural creature, they argue, he is still governed by sin; that human stain can never be blotted out. He may have been made in the image of God, but he repeatedly defaces himself through his innate willfulness. Whatever man now shares with the divine has been given him only through God's merciful grace, he has not earned it by virtue of his place in a divinely ordered cosmological scheme. In fact, he has not earned it all.

This conviction can have a profound effect on the Christian's relation to the world. To take it seriously is to be reminded that, since Christ's arrival, there is only one door issuing from man to God, and it exists in the heart: It is an interior passage; it does not give out into the world. It is vanity to think we can somehow approach God by learning more about the world or by reforming ourselves or our political institutions to bring them into line with what we take to be biblical authority. We are justified not by our works in the world, but by our faith in Christ Jesus. We are reconciled with God by his grace, through his Holy Spirit, not by our own labors or even by our own initiative. . . . We will be redeemed when he wills it, when he raises us out of this fallen cosmos and destroys it, welcoming us back into his bosom. In the meantime, if we are active in the world, it is at his command and to serve his ends alone.
Mark Lilla, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West (Alfred A. Knopf: New York 2007), p. 37-38 (emphasis added).

There have been others, of late, who have identified two strains in Christianity, one emphasizing the goodness of creation, the other original sin. These include Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who spoke about divisions based on different views of Creation in her talk with clergy in the Diocese of New Jersey. Also is the more radical vision of Matthew Fox, in his A New Reformation: Creation Spirituality and the Transformation of Christianity, in which he "proclaims that we are in fact confronted with two churches: one expressed by the image of the Punitive Father, personified by a rigidly hierarchical church structure, repression of the feminine, spreading of homophobia and the elimination of internal dissent; and the other expressed by the feminine figure of Wisdom, personified by a Mother/Father God of justice and compassion. It is time for Christians to choose whom it will follow: an angry exclusionary god or the loving open path of wisdom." (at

Lilla's account, however, is more complex in that it focuses on how these two tendencies play out through the course of Western intellectual history in terms of their relationship to political thinking. It is an admittedly selective view (see, for example, comments on The Stillborn God by Mark Lilla, Charles Taylor, and others here at The Immanent Frame) , focusing as it does on what he calls "political theology" in light of the writings of Locke, Hume, Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant and others (not to mention first touching base with St. Augustine and Thomas Acquinas). Lilla's book, based on a series of lectures given at Oxford, is quite a different enterprise than Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, which discusses the history of secularization in the West, but Lilla's intellectual history, however rareified, is marvelously suggestive of both current divisions within Christianity and how they play out in relationship to politics and the modern state.

The line bolded above leaped out at me as capturing what seems to drive some advocates of conservative views of Christianity and, perhaps, much of the Current Unpleasantedness in the Episcopal Church. I will never fully understand how calls to do good in the world and practical proposals to help alleviate poverty and hunger, such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), can be considered anti-Christian by some, but Lilla's perspective sheds some light on what may be at work. What remains to be seen is whether these two views, both part and parcel of the history of Christianity, are indeed contradictory and ultimately irreconcilable, thus requiring a split in those churches that profess or seek to accomodate both views.