Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Nature of Faith -- Luther's version

Since today is the anniversary of Luther's nailing those 95 theses to the wall of Wittenburg Castle, it might be worth posting a bit about him. I was looking through my lecture notes, which I had used a number of years ago when teaching for Fuller, and found these reflections on Luther's vision of faith. Now, it's important to note that these views emerged after 1517. It was only later that he came to view faith as the key to understanding justification.

Luther started with the premise that we are justified by God's grace, received from God by faith -- but what is faith. The Swedish Lutheran historian Bengt Hagglund suggested that the Reformation doctrine of faith was very different from that espoused by the scholastics. The Scholastic writers thought of faith as a level of reason acquired through instruction and preaching. They distinguished this from infused faith which was a gift and involved full adherence to revealed truth. Luther rejected this distinction and defined faith not only as intellectual adherence to truth but also as "an actual fellowship with God, in which man places all of his trust in God and looks to Him as the source of all good. Faith for Luther was complete trust in God's mercy. [Hagglund, History of Theology, Concordia, 1987, pp. 226-227]

As a result, Luther, understood justifying faith to be the acceptance of Christ's substitutionary death on the cross as the foundation for reconciliation with God. Faith in the end is the work of God:

"Faith, however, is a divine work in us. It changes us and makes us to be born anew of God (John 1)); it kills the old Adam and makes altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers, and it brings with it the Holy Ghost. O, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith; and so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question rises; it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them. He who does not these works is a faithless man. He gropes and looks about after faith and good works, and knows neither what faith is nor what good works are, though he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works." [Luther, "Preface to Romans," in Works of Martin Luther, Philadelphia Edition, 6 vols., (Baker Book House, 1982), 6:451-52].

Though justification comes through faith, Luther made it clear that faith was not a virtue, that is being in the same vein as hope and love, but the receptive organ by which one receives God's gift of grace. Faith in essence is an acceptance of the fact that God has already accepted us on the basis of the cross.

Reformation Sunday or All Saints Day?

Tomorrow we have our choice -- we can go with Reformation Sunday or All Saints Day. We can sing "For All the Saints" or "A Mighty Fortress is Our God." Being that I pastor neither a Lutheran nor a Presbyterian Church, and thus my connections as a Disciple to the Reformation of the 16th century are more derivative than direct, and perhaps because my sermon tomorrow has to do with the Worship of God, we'll take the All Saints Day route. But, instead of For All the Saints, we'll be singing Holy, Holy, Holy.

But, it would be appropriate to note that it was on October 31, 1517, that Martin Luther launched the Reformation of the 16th century by publishing his "95 Theses," inviting a debate on matters of reform within the Catholic Church, with special attention given to indulgences and purgatory. It's only later that he is evicted from that church and helps found a new community of faith.

One principal of the Reformation that would be appropriate to remember today is the one that goes by the tune of "Reformata et Semper Reformanda" -- "Reformed and Always Reforming." And such should be our motto, especially the latter part of the statement -- for we should always be seeking to reform our practice of the faith, as we listen for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Reformers understood well that reform was an ongoing effort and not once for all!

Halloween Treat -- the Monster Mash

It's Halloween -- or if you'd like, All Hallow's Eve -- when the souls arise -- and apparently scare all the little boys and "ghouls." My favorite Halloween song is Bobby Pickett's "The Monster Mash." So, for a little change of pace, here's an animated version from YouTube!

The Past Meets the Future -- The Future of Faith #12

Transforming Theology Project
Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith, Harper One, 2009

Chapter 12: Sant’Egido and St. Praxedis:
Where the Past Meets the Future

The message that Harvey Cox wants us to hear as we read his latest book is this: we are entering a new age, what he calls the "Age of the Spirit." If we're entering a new age of Christian existence, then that means we're exiting another -- the "Age of Belief." If he is correct, and only time can truly tell us, then we are at a transitional moment, that is, we're living out our faith commitments with one foot in the old age and another inside the new one. Even if the ultimate outcome is certain, these remain uncertain times. But, perhaps there are hints of trajectories from the ancient church, and even from this middle age of belief, that can give us a sense of where we're going.

As an illustration of how the new can be born out of the old, Cox points to a community of lay Christians that in 1968 took over an old Roman church that had once been the chapel for a community of Carmelite sisters. That community – Community of Sant’ Egido has echoes of a movement founded centuries earlier by St. Francis of Assisi. It sees itself called to witness to peace and serve the poor (just like the early Franciscans). The comparison of the two movements is a reminder that the church has continually given birth to new movements of faith that are not tied to traditional structures and interests – even if they are blessed by the structures. This community, like many others, is a sign of the rebirth of faith that Cox continually speaks of – People are becoming concerned more about social justice than doctrinal minutiae.

But perhaps a more important sign of change is the fact that Christianity is transitioning from being primarily a western religion to being a global one. Today the Christian church finds its strength not in Europe or North America, but in the Global South. This new vibrant and growing community has many parallels to the church of the earliest centuries. They tend to be more practice oriented than doctrinally oriented. Ironically this change in dynamics is a result of European migrations, migrations that often had conquest as well as evangelism in mind. Thus, many non-Western people became Christians under less than desirable conditions. Nevertheless, due to the spread of the faith globally, it’s no longer possible to see the church in Euro-centric terms. Whereas, just a century ago Christians were predominantly found in Europe and North America, now the West is increasingly post-Christian and the church is increasingly post-Western.

Although Cox celebrates the increasingly diverse nature of the church, he’s under no illusion that this is an unmitigated blessing. There are divisions and practices in the Global South that are as expressive of the Age of Belief as any that are found in the North. The danger signs are, as Cox has suggested earlier, distorted and prescribed beliefs and clerical domination. Another issue that has expressed itself is a dismissiveness toward women.

But if we look back to the earlier days there are signs of another way of life, such as a mosaic in the 9th century Roman Church of St. Praxedis that pictures Bishop Theodora – an obvious female name. There are other references in early church history to women bishops that suggest that at least in some parts of the church women took leadership roles that were eliminated over time. Those roles, however, are now being restored -- though there continues to be plenty of opposition. Indeed, the vast majority of Christians continue to reject the idea that women can be priests and bishops!

Another issue that has been, and continues to be, disruptive to the harmony of the Christian community is the relationship of faith and science. Cox insists that in this new age there’s no reason for warfare. The two can be seen as complementary, not oppositional.
The two have quite different but complementary missions, the first concerning itself with empirical description, the second with meaning and values. Unfortunately, however, although the war is over, sporadic skirmishes between die-hards on both sides continue (p. 182-183).

One might question the assessment that these skirmishes are sporadic. They seem to be getting more frequent and more intense, but the point that Cox wants to make is a good one. At the end of the day, one cannot return to a pre-scientific age, nor can science offer answers to every question that faces humanity. Still, science does require people of faith to adapt to new understandings of the world.

As the church becomes a more globalized faith, in this new age the church faces growing diversity – ethnic, cultural, theological, and political. As the faith has spread, new forms and new ideas have entered the conversation. Of course, there has always been diversity – otherwise there wouldn’t be any heretics! But, while some groups insisted on existing outside the traditional structures, some reforming groups remained inside and expressed their differences with the status quo by simply getting permission from the authorities – as did St. Francis. In Cox’s view, this method of survival and growth will continue on as we move forward into the future.

In Cox’s view, the thing that has made Christianity so successful over two thousand years has been its ability to adapt to new situations. It is a movement “designed to travel” and that “takes on new life with every succeeding cultural transition” (p. 184). As we move into the future, into this Age of the Spirit, an Age that has similarities to the Age of Faith, we must understand that we can’t simply reinstall the earlier age. Instead we must seek the jewels among the junk – both from the Age of Faith and the Age of Belief.

Even though we still live with the scars Christianity has inflicted on itself, we cannot dismantle the soaring cathedrals, silence the music, shred the theological texts, or discard the splendid liturgies. They are ours as well as theirs (pp. 184-185).

The future is rooted in the past – it offers us resources and warnings as we enter a new Age of the Spirit.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Worshiping Body -- Review

THE WORSHIPING BODY: The Art of Leading Worship. By Kimberly Bracken Long. Louisville: WJK Press, 2009. ix + 130 pages

The church as the “body of Christ” is an important image. It reminds us of not only how connected we are to Christ, but the degree to which he should define us as a community of faith. Kimberly Bracken Long, Assistant Professor of Worship at Columbia Theological Seminary, has taken the image of the body and used it to inform a wonderfully written look at worship leadership. Near the close of the book, Long notes the lament of many pastors, that they simply can’t worship and lead at the same time. This book is an answer to their dilemma, for how can we lead the body in worship, if we are not at the same time worshiping ourselves?

The book is organized around parts of the body – Eyes and ears, mouth, hands, feet, and heart. Under each of these images, Long explores aspects of worship, and the leadership that is given to that worship. Thus, under eyes and ears, she focuses on attentiveness to God and to the community. Under the mouth, she looks at voice and speech – including preaching and prayer, but other aspects of speech as well. Under hands she looks at gesture and touch, and then under the feet she looks at the issue of sacred space – focusing on pulpit, font, and table. Finally, she comes to the heart – “the spirituality of the presider.”

In lifting up the image of the body and the importance of embodied worship, Long reminds us that those who preside emerge out of the body – and thus are part of the body. And, with this is the reminder that when the church gathers for worship, it “gathers to do something” (p. 4). Worship, at least in most of our communities of faith, requires that someone speak and someone lead. The one who presides, comes forth from the body, not as one who has authority over the body, but as one who has authority for the body, so that the body can fully worship the living God. The presider is the servant of the assembly, which is the primary actor in the worship setting. Thus, the presider serves as prompter, conductor, midwife. They help the body do its work. Interestingly, Long suggests that the presider/pastor is not the shepherd, but is the one who points beyond oneself to the true shepherd – God.

The question that is raised here is one of expectation – and that expectation colors what the presider/pastor/preacher does in worship. She suggests that when we come to worship, we come to enact the kingdom of God. If this is true, then when we come to worship, we should expect to encounter God there, and we should come expecting something to happen. But, that’s not what happens. Rather than coming in anticipation that God is to be encountered, we fill our time with chatter and business.

We pray in such a passionless tone that no one could be expected to enter into prayer. We put more energy into the announcements than we do into our Communion liturgies, and insist on explaining everything to death. We parade newly baptized babies around, coaxing the cooing of the congregation as though this child had not just been saved from death and delivered from the worst the world can do. Or we rush through the words, saying them by rote, using as little water as possible so we can hurry through a neat and well-packaged ceremony in order to get on with the rest of the service. We nibble on a pinch of bread and wash it down with a thimbleful of grape juice, forgetting our own deep hunger, the hunger of our communities and of the world, settling instead for a private moment with Jesus. Or we dispense with the sacrament altogether, figuring that it is really not so important to modern people such as ourselves. We have stopped expecting God to show up in worship (p. 10).

And so instead, we seek to entertain, because that’s the only way to get them in!

But, if worship is embodied. If we truly understand what it means for us to gather as the body of Christ, then, what we do in worship becomes the pattern for our lives in the world. If we’re to truly worship God, then we must bring our entire being into worship, so that we can be formed as disciples of Jesus. With that said, then we can explore how the different aspects of the body can inform the way we worship and how worship is lead.

Reading the book, I was especially struck by what Long said about attentiveness. The worship leader is to be attentive to the Kingdom – what is God up to? But, the presider must also be attentive to what is going on in worship, and not just when he or she is on stage. If the preacher is rustling with hymnals, notes, or writing prayers at the last minute, then cues are given to the congregation – only that which the presider is leading has importance. As for the mouth, she suggests that we develop a theology of speech. After all, in Scripture, the voice is important. God speaks and things happen. Jesus is the Word of God. She writes: “To be Christian, in fact, is to hear the word and then to testify” (p. 53). Thus, we as presiders must give attention to what happens in our preaching, in declarations of forgiveness (for those communities that share a prayer of confession), in the reading of scripture, and even in the benediction. In our speech, we must beware of sloppiness.
In an effort to be hospitable (and, to be honest, likable), presiders can fall into the trap of mistaking a familiar, intimate, easygoing manner with good worship leadership. Often that means sloppy speech – that is, inattentiveness to the way language works and an over dependence on charisma and personal style. The result is that worship leadership becomes more about the presider’s ability to be winsome and persuasive – even emotionally manipulative – rather than about gathering with the rest of the body in the presence of God. (p. 67).

Eyes, ears, mouth – all are important images, but what about those hands? We forget about gestures and body language. How often do we give attention to how we use our body? And what do those gestures say to the community? There is, Long suggests, an art of gesturing – and thus we must practice and be aware of our bodies. As for touch, this has important meaning – especially such uses of touch as laying on of hands in prayer or anointing with oil. From the hands we move to the feet – to the importance of sacred space. The focus here is not so much on what the space looks like, but how it is understood and used. When we come to worship, is this space – no matter how it was used earlier – considered sacred – a place of encountering God? How we lay out our worship space speaks of our theologies and practices. In this chapter she speaks to how we use pulpit, font (baptismal), and Table, suggesting ways in which all can be reclaimed and used to lead worship effectively. This chapter is not just about furniture. It’s also about movement, movement of presiders and movement of the people, including movement from the building into the world. This is because what we do in worship should set patterns for what we do in the world.

The book concludes with a look at the heart of the body – the spirituality of the presider. In this concluding chapter Long suggests five practices that can help the presider lead the body in worship. She begins with leading from the heart, that is knowing the words and the patterns of worship by heart. Then, she writes that our leadership should be rooted in prayer, that we should let go of control to God, and trust the service to God in prayer. We should also love the body, and lead with authenticity. Finally, we should lead with passion. That last statement needs some explanation – for she writes this doesn’t mean “bringing an overwrought sense of melodrama to presiding.” Instead, what it means is that what we say and what we do in worship should be

imbued with the deep conviction that every bit of it matters. For at the root of all that presiders do is that vision of the coming reign of God – the vision that gathers us as the people of God, frees us for living the Christian life, and fuels us for working with God, to help bring in the kingdom (p. 114).
The important message of this book is that worship isn’t about style or format. Life and passion don’t derive from a certain kind of music. Instead, it comes from expectation – both on the part of the presider and the people gathered – that God is at work and the kingdom is coming and even is already here in our midst. The presider plays an important role in this, but the presider isn’t the star or the center piece. Worship is something the body does, and the presider is part of the body, which is why if the presider isn’t worshiping with the body, then something is amiss.

Long’s book is informed by her experience as a pastor and as a worshiper. It’s informed by her Presbyterian background and theology. John Calvin, while not a dominant voice, is an important one in this conversation. Style is not an issue here – indeed, there is little discussion of music. The question is – what do we as presiders expect to happen when we come into the sanctuary? As we ask this question, I believe Kimberly Bracken Long has much to say to us. This should be essential reading for every pastor and presider in worship.

For all the Saints -- Sine Nomine

In preparation for All Saints Day -- on Sunday -- here is the hymn "For All the Saints." It's sung by the Scottish Paisley Abbey church.

Which Bible do the Bible Believers Believe? Future of Faith #11

Transforming Theology Project
Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith, Harper One, 2009

Chapter 11: Meet Rocky, Maggie, and Barry:
Which Bible Do the Bible Believers Believe?

Conservative Christians are clear on one thing. They believe in the Bible. Cox doesn’t mention it, but just a few decades ago Harold Lindsell made much ado about a supposed battle for the Bible. Among his targets was my alma mater, Fuller Seminary, a school Lindsell helped found. They weren’t strict enough, having traded inerrancy for a more flexible infalliblist stance. The battle continues to rage to this day. The question that Harvey Cox raises in this chapter is a good one – which Bible are we talking about? After all, a church in North Carolina is burning bibles, except the divinely authorized KJV. And a Right Wing activist is going to publish a conservative Bible, which corrects the text so it fits conservative Republican ideology.

So, when we say that we follow the Bible, which Bible is it? Is it the Catholic version or the Protestant one or maybe the Hebrew Bible. Does it include the so-called Apocrypha (deutero-canonicals) or not? Should we wonder with Luther whether James might best be left out of the canon (or as some modern critics ask – Revelation?)

If you were to travel back into time and spend time with second century Christians, you would quickly discover that their Bible consisted of an Old Testament, but not a New Testament, and the version of the OT they would have been using would have been the Septuagint. As for the emerging New Testament, decisions on what was sacred and what was not had yet to be made. Christians were just as likely to consult 1 Clement or the Shepherd of Hermas as they would Paul’s letters or one of our canonical gospels. And if we were to travel back to the fifteenth century we would find the church using books that the Reformers would be rejecting in the sixteenth century.

Of course, canonical issues are one thing, and translation issues are another. Which one is the right one? Consider for a moment that furor caused by the translators of the Revised Standard Version in the 1950s, when they followed the logic of the Hebrew text and rendered Isaiah 7:14 with a young woman rather than a virgin bearing the promised child. Although there was much angst, the issues aren’t new. Origen wrestled with translation issues back in the 3rd century, wondering which translation was the right one.

Of course, sophisticated Fundamentalists (as opposed to the KJV only crowd) know that no translation is perfect. Thus, they generally fall back on the original Greek and Hebrew. But alas, no such original documents are currently known to exist. Thus, they must take it by faith – but faith based on something without evidence. At best we must rely on copies of copies, some of which lack sections of texts that have long appeared in our Bibles.

Cox does have some fun with the issue by pointing out trends in translation and editions, including one called Good as News, a version I’d never heard of before, which goes so far as to change names into modern nick names – Rocky for Peter, Maggie for Mary Magdalene, and Barry for Barnabas. Then there’s Revolve, a magazine style Bible aimed at teenage girls, a version including dating, beauty, and dieting tips. What is interesting is that while seemingly up on the latest trends, including a translation I’d never heard of, he speaks of Good News for Modern Man as if it’s the latest thing on the market – despite the fact that it’s been out since the 1960s. And now, one that Cox doesn’t mention, one that should likely be kept for adults only, Robert Crumb’s version of Genesis. And, we shouldn't forget Thomas Jefferson’s cut and paste edition.

But even this isn’t enough, for there’s not just the standard translations and texts, but all manner of non-canonical texts to consider, many of which were discovered in the last century. Documents like the Gospel of Thomas, remind us that there were other Christians, unconventional ones who once existed alongside the “orthodox” groups that we know today. Cox writes of the importance of these additional texts for the contemporary world.

The antiquity and “authenticity” (whatever that term means) of each of them is constantly disputed. But they serve the positive purpose of demonstrating that a wide variety of different versions of Christianity, not just one, flourished during those early centuries. The enormous interest in them today suggests that they offer an alternative spirituality that is attractive to man twenty-first century people (p. 165).

Now, I may not be as excited about these extra texts as Cox is, but their existence and their popularity suggests that people are looking for more options, and that our traditional understandings of faith are coming into question.

But, if all of this – from translation issues to the breadth of the canon isn’t enough, we must also deal with the writings of other religions, writings that are taken just as seriously by the adherents of those religions as the Bible is by Christians. Indeed, Cox asks an important question that is worth considering: Does it bother Fundamentalists that conservative groups within other religious traditions share the same view as to the authority and inspiration of their sacred texts as do these Christians? Indeed, he writes:
I sometimes wonder if those who would like to get prayer and scripture reading back into public-school classrooms (which might, under certain conditions, be a good idea) would allow the scripture to be read from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita or the prayer to be the Muslim Shahada in classes in which there are students from those traditions, as there are in many American cities (p. 167).

When we talk about the Bible in America, we need to recognize the diversity of options available, including those that lie beyond the Christian or even the Jewish Bibles.

So, how did we get into this predicament? What were the turning points in history that lead to our modern debates? Cox makes an interesting suggestion that includes four primary turning points. The first is the creation of the printing press in the 15th century, which allowed for an increase in literacy and the wide distribution of the biblical text – essentially democratizing access to the Bible. This was followed several centuries later by the birth of the historical critical method, which ironically attempted to remove the Bible from the hands of the people and return it to the elite – this time not to priests, but to scholars. This 19th century move was followed in quick succession by the birth of fundamentalism, which tried to take the bible back from the historical critics and give it to the people. The fourth movement occurred in the 20th century, as the Bible was liberated from both critics and fundamentalists – largely by Christians living in the global south who had different needs and issues. Cox sees hope for the future in this fourth movement, for in this we move beyond both critics and fundamentalists. It might seem a bit odd to read a Harvard Divinity School faculty member tell readers to take the historical critics and their skepticism with a grain of salt, but he does (p. 168).

It’s not that Cox wants us to return to literalism, but rather he would have us treat scripture more like we would Shakespeare. Rather than getting caught in textual minutiae, we should attend to the broader, and quite powerful, narrative. We should read with imagination, rather than either trying to sanctify it or pick apart its accuracy. The Bible is, he writes, too important to be left to either the critics or the Bible thumpers. Yes, we need to know from whence it came, and why, but at the same time we need to let it speak on its own. But if we’re going to let it speak it will take hard work on our part to hear what it might have to say to us.

To let it speak, we will have to recognize that the text of scripture includes materials that are less than savory, that differ from our modern sensibilities, but there is something that it can say, if we let it speak to us.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Back to the Twelfth Century: Peter the Venerable and Benedict XVI -- Sightings

Yesterday I posted on Harvey Cox's views of interfaith dialog. Today, Lucy Pick, a lecturer in the history of Christianity at the University of Chicago, comments on Benedict XVI's remarks about a 12th century Benedictine being an exemplar of faith and practice -- especially in regards to conversations with other faith traditions. Pick suggests that this choice is a bit odd, for while Peter the Venerable did seek to engage Jews and Muslims in conversation, the assumption was that if the other did not agree then the other wasn't human. So, what is Benedict trying to say by lifting up this medieval abbot?


Sightings 10/29/09

Back to the Twelfth Century: Peter the Venerable and Pope Benedict XVI

-- Lucy K. Pick

In his general audience in St. Peter’s Square on October 14th, Pope Benedict gave an address in which he held up the twelfth-century monk and abbot of Cluny, Peter the Venerable, as a model for contemporary Christians, lay and monastic, praising him for his ability to balance both contemplative spirituality and the demands and pressures of the world. Peter was an unusual choice. Though the pope associated him with the abbey’s canonized abbots, quoting his papal predecessor Gregory VII that at Cluny, “there was not a single abbot who was not a saint,” Peter in fact was never canonized. Why select him as a model over other Benedictine contemplative administrators, not least Saint Benedict himself, who could provide the same example of tranquility in the face of turmoil? What makes Peter stand out from his brethren at this moment in time?

Pope Benedict praised Peter in part because, "He showed care and solicitude even for those who were outside the Church, in particular for the Jews and Muslims: to foster knowledge of the latter he had the Quran translated." His admiration for Peter’s interest in Jews and Muslims was important enough that the pope repeated it in the much shorter English paraphrase that followed the address. Peter is indeed well known for his strong and passionate belief in the power of reason to convert Jews and Muslims to Christianity; for his efforts to translate Islamic texts; for his treatises against Jews, Muslims, and heretics – and for his conclusion that those who did not convert when approached with reason were not rational and thus not fully human.

When I read this recent address, I immediately recalled the famous, or infamous, address the pope gave three years ago, at the University of Regensburg. His quotation in this speech of a Christian anti-Islamic polemic that argued that Christianity persuades by reason, while Islam converts only through violence, enraged the Muslim world. But just as disturbing were the broader claims his speech made about the correct nature of reason. Benedict presented a model of right reason and right faith as both intrinsically united and intrinsically Christian. "Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God," he proclaimed, quoting his medieval Christian polemicist. Though the address was framed as an invitation to dialogue with those of other religions, it is necessarily a dialogue of a very particular kind – not dialogue as a free exchange between equal partners, but a dialogue in which Christian reason sets the parameters and limits of the discussion. It is medieval dialogue, very familiar to Peter the Venerable, used both as a pedagogical genre in which a master instructs a student, and as a way of showing the truth of Christianity in contrast with other religions.

The dangers of a dialogue in which its parameters predict its outcome should be evident. Arguments like these were made in the Middle Ages with horrendous results when Muslims and especially Jews continued in their own paths despite being faced with the “rational” arguments of medieval polemicists. Convicted of irrationality, non-Christians could easily then be labelled as less than human. Peter the Venerable himself points the way to this tragic history in his treatise against the Jews in a passage addressing an imagined Jewish interlocutor that is typical, not exceptional: “It seems to me, Jew, that I have satisfied every man about the questions put to me with many authorities, and much reasoned argument. And if I have satisfied every man, then also you too, if you are a man. For I do not dare to call you a man, lest perhaps I lie, since I know that reason, which separates man from the other beasts, is extinguished, nay buried in you...Why should I not call you a brute animal? Why not a beast, why not an ox?”

This is not dialogue that seeks to widen channels of communication between those of different faiths; this is not even dialogue that seeks to convert. This is a discourse that uses the form of dialogue as a means to define non-Christians and distance them from the community of the faithful. It may be exactly what the pope wants, especially if Ross Douthat’s New York Times opinion column of October 25th is correct that the pope’s recent gesture towards disaffected Anglicans was motivated by his desire to present a united Christian front against the Islamic world. But it is a radical departure from the way the Roman Catholic Church has approached inter-religious dialogue for decades, and a return to a mode of Catholic self-understanding with a very unhappy past.


“On Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny.”

“Papal Address at the University of Regensburg”

Ross Douthat, “Benedict’s Gamble,”

Peter the Venerable. Adversus Iudeorum inveteratam duritiem. Ed. Yvonne Friedman. Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Medievalis 58 (Turnhout, 1985)

Lucy K. Pick is Senior Lecturer in the History of Christianity and Director of Undergraduate Studies at The University of Chicago Divinity School. With colleagues Jim Robinson and Malika Zeghal, she is organizing a conference open to the public on “Deconstructing Dialogue. New Perspectives on Religious Encounters: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern,” January 21-23, 2010 at the Divinity School. For more information, see


In this month’s edition of the Religion and Culture Web Forum, Andre C. Willis of Yale Divinity School explores recent work by three major thinkers who both find inspiration in the pragmatic tradition and take religion seriously in their investigations of democracy—Jeffrey Stout, Roberto Unger, and Cornel West. He seeks to develop a conceptual grounding for his own move toward a pragmatism, rooted in social practice, which also bears a theological sensibility suitable for addressing those contingencies that are, in fact, the existential consequences of political realities. With invited responses from Eddie Glaude (Princeton University), Corey D. B. Walker (Brown University), and others.

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Sacred Space, the Pulpit and the Sacrament of the Word

I've written a rather long title for this post, in part because I want to connect a couple of things. I return again to Kimberly Bracken Long's fascinating book The Worshiping Body: The Art of Leading Worship, (WJK, 2009). In a chapter entitled "Feet" she works with the concept of sacred space.

There is a trend today to de-sacralize worship space. It's true that in the earliest days of the church, the people met in homes and gardens, but as Long notes, no matter where we gather, there is a sense that when we gather for worship, that space, no matter its normal use, becomes sacred space. Although I have no need for grand cathedrals to be my base of worship, I wonder if we sometimes take little concern about the space and its use.

But, that leads me to the pulpit and its place in worship. We recently moved from a split chancel arrangement to a center pulpit one. Part of this was a practical need to better connect from the pulpit. I realize I could move out of the pulpit, perhaps using a music stand as my "pulpit." But, I would rather use a pulpit.

As I was reading Long, I came across her reflections on the pulpit, and encouragement to reclaim the pulpit. Now, she acknowledges that the pulpit arrangement can have problems, but there is value here. And what she notes is that the pulpit can make an important symbolic statement. The pulpit can be a symbol of the sacramental nature of the Word -- not just the preached word, but the Word of God. This is especially true if the Pulpit is not only the place where the preacher proclaims the word, but also where the Word is read. When we moved to a center pulpit, the Bible that had been on the lectern was placed on the pulpit. It took a little a bit of reflection to figure out how to put my manuscript on it without the notes slipping off, but by moving to one pulpit, with the Bible upon it, we do have a new witness to the importance of the Word as sacrament. But hear what she has to say:

In the same way that the table is the place set aside for the celebration of the Lord's Supper and the font is the place set aside for baptism and its related rites, the pulpit is set aside for the sacrament of the Word. In arguing for the importance of the sacraments, John Calvin compared them to the Word: "Therefore, let it be regarded as a settled principle that the sacraments have the same office as the Word of God: to offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace." Or, to put it conversely, the Word of God -- understood as Scripture read and proclaimed -- has the same office as the Sacraments. (p. 98).

The pulpit then, is not simply the place where the preacher performs -- indeed it is not simply the domain of the preacher -- but is the place where the Word is lifted up and heard as a means of grace.

Worship -- what is the vision it evokes?

This Sunday I will be concluding a six week sermon series focusing on six core values, the last of which focuses on worship. As we consider what it means for us to be missional, we must ask the question how does worship fit? My fear is that in many descriptions of missional congregations worship is either left out of the equation or is seen as means to something -- a tool. But is that worship is about?

I've been reading Kimberly Bracken Long's book The Worshiping Body (WJK, 2009). It's quite a good book, one that pastors and worship leaders probably ought to read. She speaks of the "vision we enact whenever we gather for worship." She notes that in worship we come as equals and are made equals in worship through our baptism. Listen to these words, which I believe should have great meaning for us as people of faith.

In other words, we enact a vision in worship where all are equal in the sight of God, and all are treated as such, with dignity and love. We act out of the grace that all receive, poured out in equal and abundant measure. We live out in our worship -- and at our most faithful, in the world -- that vision where the rules of the world cease to have any power and God's realm is the one that is really real. In enacting together the promised reign of God, we lean expectantly into the coming kingdom even as we wait and pray for it. It is an active waiting, where we describe the vision without words and act it out with our hands and feet and faces -- indeed, with our whole bodies." (Long, p. 9)

Here is a vision that brings us together as a body, prompted yes by leaders, but prompted in a way that we expectantly await the reign of God.

Get Them into the Lifeboat -- Future of Faith #10

Transforming Theology Project
Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith, Harper One, 2009,

Chapter 10: Get Them into the Lifeboat:
The Pathos of Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism is a variant of creedalism, one that equates faith with the unwavering affirmation of certain fundamental beliefs. It is an obsession with belief, which according to Harvey Cox, makes faith itself more elusive. This concern for right doctrine creates a defensiveness and spiritual pride that isn’t “in keeping with the love ethic of Jesus” (p. 141). Cox speaks of fundamentalism with a certain level of personal experience – even if not long in duration. Like many college young people he got drawn into a conservative Christian community – his encounter was related to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in the late 1940s. In telling his story, he notes that the IVF people were sincere, friendly, and inviting. They were also concerned for intellectual rigor – except that they rejected any critical study of scripture and lacked a concern for social justice. He notes also that there was a certain social prudery in this group (no necking allowed). As he navigated the social mores and the doctrinal limitations, questions emerged that didn’t find an answers, and in time he found himself moving away from the movement.

Having spent some time in such circles myself, I can concur with some of what he writes (though my experiences were 30 years later, when social mores had loosened up somewhat – necking was okay, within limits). Like him, I can say that I learned a lot from my time in the conservative Christian community, including a deep appreciation for Scripture, but I too found myself moving away from that perspective.

Fundamentalism is marked by a number of concerns ranging from biblical inerrancy to the virgin birth of Christ, but the one “fundamental” that is perhaps most troubling to him (and to me) is the focus on an end times theology that can be both “destructive and self serving.” Especially troubling is the dispensationalist form that was developed by John Nelson Darby in the late 19th century. This theology, which includes an elaborate end times scenario focused on the rapture of the church (the focus of the Left Behind novels), makes, in his estimation, “any concern for the health of the planet’s oceans and air and forests superfluous.” It also undermines any responsible engagement in the Middle East, where Armageddon is supposed to occur at the end of days.

Although troubling, the roots of fundamentalism are understandable. Consider the fears that people will lose their faith in the face of modern intellectual challenges. Cox points to a 1910 Harvard sponsored lecture by Charles Eliot that suggested that Christianity should be marked by only one commandment – loving God through service to others. In this new version of Christianity there would be no place for “theology, churches, scriptures, or worship” (p. 147). It was in response to “attacks” such as these that the five fundamentals were formulated and dispersed across the country and beyond. Each of the five was designed to counteract specific perceived attacks on the faith.
There were five. The first and most prominent “fundamental” was the divine inspiration and total inerrancy of the Bible. This conviction was the cornerstone on which everything else was built. Second, they listed the Virgin Birth of Christ as a testimony to his divinity. Next, they included the “substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross for the sins of the world, and his bodily resurrection from the dead. Finally, they asserted that belief in the imminent second coming of Christ “in Glory” was in no way optional, but just as “fundamental” as the other beliefs in their creed” (p. 148).

He points out that this list seems arbitrary. Nothing is said of the life of Jesus and his ministry, for instance. Why did they pick these five? They counteracted the challenges – thus inerrancy was designed to respond to historical criticism, the virgin birth and atonement were responses to the idea that Jesus was nothing more than a spiritual leader and example.

With the world heading in the direction that the fundamentalists perceived the only real course of action seemed to be to rescue as many as possible before the end came. Thus, Dwight L. Moody spoke of getting people into lifeboats as the ship sank. Although they were wary of outside threats, they were most concerned about the threats from within the church – fifth columns that would offer a counterfeit form of faith that fit with the modern world.
In Cox’s view, there is definitely vigor in this version of Christian religion, but is there any future in a faith that is defined by what it’s reacting to? He admires their “commitment and drive,” but being a fundamentalist takes a lot of effort.

You must constantly fight not only the skepticism of those around you, but the doubts that arise within yourself. Mainly fundamentalists evoke from me a sense of sadness. Their pathos is that they expend such energy on such a losing cause (p. 152-153).

As noted up front in the book, Cox believes that fundamentalism is on the way out. That is because it simply cannot sustain itself in the modern world. It offers not a vision of transformation, but only of retrenchment and ultimately escape. There may be a lot of energy involved, but is it accomplishing anything? These are the questions.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Who Was John the Baptist?

This is the question asked by the Rev. Katherine Willis Pershey in an article for Disciples World. The subtitled gives us a clue -- "Understanding the 'Wild Man of the Bible'."

During Advent we are introduced in several Gospel accounts to the forerunner of Jesus, the one who baptizes Jesus, but who according to the Gospels is unworthy to tie Jesus' shoes. But, who is this enigmatic man who eats wild locusts and dresses in fur? Katherine's excellent article offers us some clues, not just to how the Bible answers the question, but how art, literature, and other religious communities have answered it.

To read the article, click here

Living in Haunted Houses -- Future of Faith

Transforming Theology Project
Harvey Cox, Future of Faith, Harper One, 2009

Chapter 9: Living in Haunted Houses:
Beyond the Interfaith Dialogue

As someone who has been actively involved in interfaith conversations for sometime, I would agree with Harvey Cox that it’s easier (and a lot more fun) to talk with more liberal-minded members of other faith communities than it is to talk with more conservative members of my own faith community. It is important to note that these days interfaith dialogue goes beyond Protestants talking with Catholics and Jews. Interfaith dialogue is important to the future of our world, although Eboo Patel has pointed out in Acts of Faith that too often high level interfaith conversation leads to little more than talk. That is why the Interfaith Youth Core has taken a different tactic – putting more focus on doing things together rather than talking about either commonalities or differences.

The reality is that the world has grown smaller and that what was once exotic and far off has moved in next door. This has led to tensions and even violence in some places. Indeed, as Cox notes, proximity has at times, “spawned suspicion and contempt, and just has religion has become more rather than less of a force in our time, the relationships among the different traditions have reached a new moment of crisis” (p. 128).

If we’re to deal with this crisis, we need to understand our own roots and deal with our co-religionists in a constructive way– that is, engage ones we would rather not engage. Cox made this point earlier in the book – that knowing one’s own faith tradition is essential if one is to truly engage with people of other faith traditions. As he explores this idea further here, he points out that even atheists and converts to other religions are influenced by the traditions into which they were born or raised. Thus, an atheist raised in a Christian environment is likely rejecting a different God than one raised in a Hindu or Buddhist environment. And, more to the point here, Christians or Jews who convert to Buddhism, for instance, “suffuse their Buddhism with Christian or Jewish overtones” (p. 129).

We are a people who seem to need faith, but the way we live out this need differs from faith to faith and community to community. Still, we live in a shrinking village, with separate houses. There’s conversation going on, but perhaps the conversation partners are the wrong ones, which is why, despite the growing number of interfaith organizations, the level of interfaith violence is growing. We can’t avoid each other, but if our conversation occurs only with those who share values of tolerance and cooperation, we’ll not get very far.
There are, according to our author, two wings in each religion – the dialogue wing and the fundamentalist or “circle the wagon” wings.

Whatever else they may disagree on, fundamentalists in every tradition concur on one thing: they vociferously oppose interfaith dialogue. They see it as a clear evidence of selling out. Their refusal to come to the table is aggravating to anyone trying to build peace among the religions. But the response to their refusal is also disappointing. Most of those participating in interfaith dialogues – although there are a few exceptions – are content to stay with the easiest elements of the conversations. (P. 132).

Thus, we need to talk with our fundamentalist wings, as well as try to engage with other religions, if we’re to move to the next level of cooperation.

Cox tells the story of his decision to extend an invitation to Jerry Falwell, inviting him to speak at Harvard. He notes that many students and colleagues at Harvard opposed this invitation. While the meeting bore little real fruit, it did prove that such conversations could be had. Indeed, that conversation was followed up by one involving faculty from Pat Robertson’s Regent University.

The point here is that intra-faith dialogue may actually be more difficult than interfaith dialogue, but without the former we will likely make little progress in the latter. The good news is that there are signs of a thaw between parts of the conservative/liberal axis. There is a growing concern for justice in parts of the conservative religious community that bodes well for future engagement. There is the realization among some that faith might be more important than belief. Thus, it’s time to seize upon this opportunity.

In considering the next steps, Cox says that future conversations will need to take place along three trajectories. First is the one that goes on between differing religious traditions. Second is the conversation with the other wings of our own traditions. Finally there is an engagement with “the complex political context of our fractured world.” This last trajectory is a reminder that there are strong political entanglements to our religious relationships and conversations.

Thus, the question before us is this: Are we ready and willing to engage each other, even when the conversations are difficult? Are we willing to take the more difficult path?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

All Politics is Local -- Thoughts on an upcoming election

In a week from now, the citizens of Troy (at least some of them) will go to the polls. They'll elect school board members at a time when schools face massive reductions in state support. They'll also elect three new city council members -- one candidate is an incumbent -- and the Council faces major financial issues. What is true for Troy is true elsewhere, the question is -- will those running for office provide leadership at a difficult time?

Over the past few weeks I've posted some on this issue. I've spoken out about a City Council that is controlled by a right wing cabal, that is more ideologically driven than concerned about solving problems. They chant an anti-tax mantra, but fail to recognize that when revenues are falling its generally a good thing to find new sources of revenue. Citizens understand this -- if they're given the relevant information -- and will support new revenue sources, even if that means paying more in taxes. In this case, the falling property values mean a reduction in assessed taxes, so even if a millage increase was passed it likely would not result in increased taxes for homeowners, just a stabilization of them.

It is unfortunate that there are so few sources of accurate information in this city of nearly 85,000 people. The city is served by two small, once a week papers, and then more regional papers, one published in Pontiac, the other in Royal Oak. There was a twice a week paper, but it folded. The Troy blogosphere is almost completely empty, with the exception of a couple of right wing blogs.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I've seen the incumbent in action on cable access and am not impressed, and he seems the best of the bunch on his "tax fighters" slate. I've met the three challengers recommended by the Troy Leadership Coalition, a group that is committed ‘to engage and educate the Troy community on the serious challenges and opportunities facing our City and to foster, promote and elect leaders who will serve the diverse needs of our community’.

Those candidates are Dane Slater, Will Molnar, and Maureen McGinniss. I believe that they will give a different, more pragmatic voice to the council. None of them are ideologically driven. I know that one candidate is a former Republican who got disgusted by his party's right wing tilt and joined the Democrats. I don't know the affiliation of the other two, but that doesn't matter because this is a non-partisan race. Let's get people into leadership that will do what's necessary to improve the city, not elect ideologues, people who are committed to the common good not just to what is politically expedient.

No Lunch with the Prefect -- Future of Faith #8

Transforming Theology Project
Harvey Cox, Future of Faith, Harper One, 2009

Chapter 8: No Lunch with the Prefect:
How to Fix the Papacy

It is intriguing that non-Catholics find the papacy intriguing. Indeed, it’s even more intriguing to see someone who has strong anti-clerical, anti-hierarchical, anti-creedal, anti-imperial predilections find great value in the papacy. Yet, that is the message of chapter 8, which begins with an account of Harvey Cox’s meeting with the current Pope, Benedict XVI, back when the pontiff was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. According to Cox's account, it wasn’t a long meeting, but it was an opportunity to explore the possibility of a reform of the papacy for the purpose of giving leadership to a new age of Christianity.

Cox has had the opportunity to meet several Popes, including Paul VI, who spoke kindly of his book The Secular City (I guess I need to read the book!). He asked the current pope, who had silenced Hans Küng and Leonardo Boff, what was the main source of heresy in the modern world. Interestingly enough Cardinal Ratzinger didn’t name Küng’s liberalism or Boff’s political views, but rather syncretism. What he discovered in this conversation was that the current pope is still deeply rooted in a European world view – while his church has become predominantly non-European.

The point that needs to be made here, however, concerns the discussion that has preceded this one. He notes that Ratzinger said that the way they would deal with these issues that affect the church is through the bishops. Those few words spoke volumes. Yes, he was saying, the old malignancies on the mystical body are still there. They might be assuming a new form, but they will be dealt with as they always have been: by those who, as the only legitimate heirs of the original apostles, hold the unique right to do so (P. 117).

Hierarchy is the solution, a hierarchy that has its roots in the fiction of apostolic succession. And, added to that, you have a papacy that is undergirded by papal infallibility. Now, this power (at least officially -- Popes carry the aura of infallibility in the minds of many, Catholic or not) has been only used once, by Pius XII to affirm the Assumption of Mary as a doctrine. Now, you would think the Pope would speak to something a little bit more relevant, but that’s not the case. All the other statements, ones with great impact on society, were done without this benefit. From Cox’s point of view (one I share), the problem isn’t with the way it is used, but the idea of infallibility itself. The problem, and here he connects the conversation with the basic premise of the book, is that by requiring unbending assent to the dictates of a church leader, such a doctrine “requires not faith, but belief” (p. 120).

The subtitle of this chapter signals Cox’s interest in the papacy. As a non-Catholic, why would he be interested in fixing the papacy? Well, perhaps it’s because, the papacy has a certain aura, a certain authority that is inherent in it that allows the occupant to speak to the world in a powerful way. Few other religious leaders have such an opportunity -- not even Anglicans pay much heed to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Perhaps the Dalai Lama is the only other figure to have such an impact, and in the case of the Dalai Lama it’s more about personality than office. With the papacy, it’s the office. Sure a John Paul II or a John XXIII gives a certain depth and personality to the office, but in the final analysis it’s the office. Just look at the current occupant. He’s not a charismatic figure – but we pay attention, even when we disagree.

Back to Cox’s points, he notes that as a result of his studies of the papacy and encounters with popes (despite his religious foundations) he’s concluded that maybe there’s “an important role for the papacy in the Christianity of the future” – despite this thing about infallibility. He finds value in the fact that this institution has lasted so long and survived its occupants, some of whom have been less than savory characters.

The person whom Cox believes best embodied the qualities that a pope will need to be a lead figure as we move forward isn’t John Paul II, despite his charisma, but John XXIII. It is this pope who in his own person redefined the papacy. Perhaps it will be the Pope (likely not the current occupant) who can lead us – whether Catholic or not – into a new day.

We will need to ponder this, for it is odd that a good Baptist would put such hope in a Catholic Pontiff.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Constantine's Last Supper -- Future of Faith #7

Transforming Theology Project
Harvey Cox, Future of Faith, Harper One, 2009

Chapter 7: Constantine’s Last Supper:
The Invention of Heresy

Events had been set in the preceding centuries that were the prelude to the triumph of hierarchy and creedalism in the church. Now, with Constantine’s embrace of Christianity – in principle if not in general practice – the possibility of enforcing belief became possible. Before this, the church could use only excommunication, but state support and patronage would give power and authority to the church that it had never before experienced. The church, which had contained within its membership few among the elite, now became exceedingly popular. The elite quickly joined the religious community in great numbers that was patronized by the emperor.

An important and intriguing component of the chapter is Cox’s discussion of the cross and how it became the primary symbol of the church. He suggests that prior to Constantine’s “conversion,”this had not been true (I need to do more research on the emergence of the cross as a primary symbol – the fish was one earlier on). But now, what had once been a symbol of the execution of subversives now became the imperial symbol of conquest and power.

Whatever the motives that Constantine may have had in recognizing and patronizing this growing religious movement, which likely still was a minority faith, the church’s response was mutual admiration. It seems to have welcomed the new imperial affirmation with open arms. From a Roman perspective, of course, religion was supposed to create social cohesion – but you needed uniformity if you were going to get cohesion. Thus, a Council was held in 325 at Nicea – the Imperial Palace on the Turkish Coast. Constantine recognized that something needed to change if Christianity was to be a social and political unifier. First up was the debate between Arius and Athanasius. Both offered theological alternatives on the question of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, and at Nicea it appears that Athanasius won, even though Arius had considerable support among the bishops gathered. But, due to the political importance of the debate, only one side could come out on top, and Constantine backed the Homoousius party. This Greek word signifies that the Father and the Son share the same substance. Of course, history shows that Nicea didn’t resolve the problem, for Council after Council was called to resolve this and that issue. But the key here is that whatever was decided now had imperial backing – and thus heresy became a crime.

The response to this eventuality is quite negative. The author notes that “the history of Christianity during the decades after Constantine makes for dreary reading” (p. 107). There is some truth to this because there was much political intrigue in the process. And history shows that the church tried time and again through council and excommunication to resolve all manner of questions – but the rancor continued. This leads Cox to suggest that maybe this is a sign of mental illness – if “mental illness can be defined as doggedly repeating the same tactic over and over again even when it has always failed.” Thus creeds are a “symptom of a long psychological disorder” (p. 108).

Those groups and movements that didn’t submit were deemed heretical and worthy of persecution. Cox notes his favorite heretical group is the Waldensians, a movement that affirmed the sole authority of Scripture, rejected papal authority, and rejected other doctrines such as purgatory. This was also a lay led movement. But, unlike the similar Franciscan movement, its unwillingness to submit to the Pope made it subversive – and thus they fled to the mountains and lived there until the 19th century when they finally were able to venture out under a newly tolerant Italian state. Of course, there’s also the issue of the filioque, which still divides East and West.

In the mind of Harvey Cox, creedal conformity and doctrinal correctness are signs of the Age of Belief, which is a time of distortion. But maybe that age is coming to an end. Indeed, there are signs of change brewing – such as John Paul II’s visit with the Waldensians. Could it be that the that the first manifestations of the Age of the Spirit might just be stirring?

Anglicans and Rome -- Sightings

The recent overtures from Rome to disgruntled Anglicans, making it easier for them to join up with the Catholic Church -- allowing these priests to marry and even use a more Anglican liturgy -- has caused some eyebrows to be raised. The issues that seem to be causing issues between Rome and Canterbury are things like women priests and gay bishops, but are there other issues here?

Martin Marty, with his usual discerning eye, takes a shot at the question in today's Sightings column.


Sightings 10/26/09

Anglicans and Rome

-- Martin E. Marty

The top ecumenical – some are saying un- or anti-ecumenical – news of the year occurred October 20th with a Vatican announcement. Bypassing forty years of Anglican-Roman Catholic conversations-cum-negotiations and blindsiding Archbishop Rowan Williams, the head of the seventy-million-member Anglican Communion, Vatican officials announced that they were taking steps to receive Anglican (in the United States, Episcopal) clergy through conversion into the Roman Catholic priesthood. Headlines had it that Rome wanted to “lure,” “attract,” “bid for” or “woo” priests and congregations to make the drastic move, while the Vatican front man, as he fished for Anglicans, said he was not fishing for Anglicans.

What was behind the move? It was hard to read as a positive ecumenical gesture – Pope Benedict XVI has made some – since it did not revoke or revise what the Pope in 1896 declared and what is always reinforced: Anglican “orders,” for sacramental credentialing, were “absolutely null and utterly void.” As recently as last year, Rome’s ecumenical officer and Anglicanism’s ecumenical partner, “good guy” Cardinal Walter Kasper, spoke softly but carried a huge stick when he charged that some parts of Anglicanism had made things worse: Is it that the orders are now absolutely-absolutely and utterly-utterly null and void? The pope visits the U.K. next year. Wait and see.

What was at issue? There were subtleties on the side, irritations which had not yet prompted a radical twist, but observers agreed that a) ordaining women as priests and b) ordaining a gay bishop and more gay priests were the grand offenses. In the good old days Christian bodies fought over the Trinity, the Incarnation, Salvation, and Sacraments. In our epoch they and the media who cover them converge obsessively on issues of sex-and-gender, where contraception and abortion, “women” and “gays,” are the flame issues. Some Anglican moves have long alienated significant minorities; four dioceses and some parishes beyond them have pulled out of the Episcopal Church in the USA. They already sought and found what is legitimate and strategic in their sight, the cover provided by especially African Anglicans who also abhor gay and women priests.

Some Episcopal priests seemed ripe for plucking, and Rome set out to harvest, even if the Church will thus be accepting some married priests, while leaving their own home-grown priests-who-marry in exile. Those with even slight suspicion suspect that the Vatican initiative is also a desperation move to help solve the shortage of priests in the Roman communion. Some of the only half-gruntled Anglicans have uttered some “not-so-fast!” or “count-me-out!” cautions. As one leader among them reminded, “there was a Reformation, you remember,” as he spoke for those who knew that being received by Rome, even with gestures that would allow Anglican converts some liturgical and traditional free range, still demands a great doctrinal gulp. Converts would have to accept papal infallibility and, with it, the infallible doctrine (1950) of the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin and other teachings which long offended non-Roman Catholics.

Archbishop Rowan Williams, though embarrassed by the surprise announcement of dealings behind his back, was characteristically Williamsian and old-style Anglican, as he reacted not in anger but with patience. The Anglican communion for centuries aspired to promote “comprehension,” doing what it could to prevent heresy and schism but in a spirit of openness. The papal visit next year will occasion fresh thinking and policies.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at

In this month’s edition of the Religion and Culture Web Forum, Andre C. Willis of Yale Divinity School explores recent work by three major thinkers who both find inspiration in the pragmatic tradition and take religion seriously in their investigations of democracy—Jeffrey Stout, Roberto Unger, and Cornel West. He seeks to develop a conceptual grounding for his own move toward a pragmatism, rooted in social practice, which also bears a theological sensibility suitable for addressing those contingencies that are, in fact, the existential consequences of political realities. With invited responses from Eddie Glaude (Princeton University), Corey D. B. Walker (Brown University), and others.

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Bishop is your high priest and mighty king -- Future of Faith

Transforming Theology Project
Harvey Cox, Future of Faith, Harper One, 2009.

Chapter 6: “The Bishop Is Your High Priest and Mighty King”:
The Rise of the Clerical Caste

If creeds are the topic of chapter five, the clerical hierarchy is the focus of chapter six. Cox, who likes to consult his Harvard colleagues, notes that Helmut Koester has written that Paul’s letters were ad hoc political/administrative works, and not doctrinal/theological. Although there is a lot of the administrative, there is also a lot of theological work – especially in Romans. And, while not taking authority over the broader church, he does seem to suggest that the churches he founded should follow his teaching. To say that Paul didn’t demand uniformity might be a rather naive reading of his letters.

The point that’s made here is that the early leaders, as they organized, felt the need to create the illusion that their positions were deeply rooted in the founding era. Thus, Tertullian suggests that the heretical positions he was opposing weren’t present at the beginning, and thus not orthodox. Cox, of course, wants to suggest that Tertullian may have missed something – for if Thomas is as early as Mark, then the witness is broader. Of course, that is a matter of some debate.

The development of hierarchy and creeds is related to the heresy/orthodoxy debate. Orthodoxy is, in this setting, the views expressed by those in power. Indeed, the picture of apostolic authority is portrayed here as directly related to the desire to acquire power. There is, of course, the possibility that things were a bit more complicated than Cox might suggest. It is interesting, however, to note that the prestige of the Apostles seems to have grown after their deaths – they don’t seem to rate very highly in Acts or in the Pauline letters (authentic or not).

There’s an interesting discussion of an early attempt to extend authority from one congregation to another – 1 Clement. Written in 96 CE, 1 Clement is written from the Roman Church to the Corinthian church, demanding that upstart younger leaders put their previous leadership back in power. Cox sees this as an early sign of a transition from equality to hierarchy. He notes also that this letter is focused not on doctrine, but on who is properly in charge. What’s not noted here is again that Paul was known to affirm his own authority over his churches, a topic picked up in 2 Corinthians. But, the point here is that we’re seeing one of the first signs of digression into the more narrow Age of Belief.

Other early witnesses of a change of dynamics include Ignatius and Irenaeus, both of whom were authoritarian and gave definition to the idea of apostolic succession. Cox, however, wants to make clear that both of these men recognized the continued diversity within the church. What they seem, in Cox’s mind, to be concerned about was a charismatic form of church that didn’t respect authority. He notes the growth of Pentecostalism today as a similar form of church life that worries church leaders. Indeed, the question then as now is one of order. This concern for order grew as the 3rd century progressed. This is seen in a work such as the Didascalia Apostolorum (a Syrian document), which insisted on the bishops absolute authority in the church, and even Origen, whose own theology would be deemed suspect, but at the time affirmed complete obedience to the bishops. Then there’s Cyprian of Carthage, who defined the unity of the church as unity of bishops. In other words, the church was essentially reduced to the clergy. The message – see how far away from the early foundations of Christianity the church had fallen.

But this was only the beginning, for in the fourth century, with Constantine’s embrace of the church and the church’s embrace of Constantine, the church was enveloped by the process of imperialization, a process that led to episcopal power and an enforced common creed. With this, the way of Jesus and the word faith itself was subverted. Faith was now nothing more or less than obeying the bishop and assenting to what he taught. Christian faith has suffered under this distortion to this day, with not even the Reformation able to change this course.

Bearing Witness to the Good News -- Core Values #5

Number 5 in a 6 sermon series on Central Woodward Christian Church's congregational core values. Reposted from Words of Welcome


Acts 1:6-14

There’s a little old song that we’ve all probably sung, and it goes like this:
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

When we sing this song, we know that it’s not talking about lighting candles or turning on flashlights when the electricity goes out. This little light that we’re supposed to let shine is our own life that serves as a sign of God’s presence in the world. It reminds us that what we do and what we say bears witness to the grace and love of God. And as Jesus said, don’t hide your light under a bushel or in a cellar – instead, put it on a lamp stand where it can be seen (Luke 11:33; Mk 14:21; Mt. 5:15).

Back in February as we discerned God’s missional calling for this congregation, and laid out six core values, one of those six was the call to be a witnessing congregation. What we heard that day, was God call us to take the lamp out of the cellar and put it back on the lamp stand, so that whether by word or by deed we would be witnesses to the good news of God’s healing and reconciling presence in the world. Right after we discerned this call, we participated in the Unbinding Your Heart study, where we worked on sharing our faith stories.

Today we rekindle this calling by attending to the guidance found in the book of Acts as to what it means to be a witnessing congregation. Our text this morning -- Acts 1 – commissions us as a church to bear witness to the good news in the power of the Holy Spirit, while being undergirded in prayer.

1. A Witness to the Ends of the Earth

Acts 1:8 is the foundational passage for the missional church. It says to us: Be my witnesses, beginning in Jerusalem, and then continue on until you reach the ends of the earth. Now, if the book of Acts is to be our guide, then the question is: what constitutes Jerusalem and then what constitutes the ends of the earth?

I’ve come to believe that if Acts 1 is to speak to our church life, then we must see our mission field as three concentric circles, beginning with our church and personal neighborhoods as the starting point for our ministries. One of the things we’ve learned from the missional church movement is that the mission field isn’t just out there. It’s also close to home. But, as important as this home mission is, we can’t lose sight of our connections beyond the inner circle of mission. Therefore, moving outward to the next circle, we see a call to embrace ministry in our Judea and Samaria, which could be seen as metro-Detroit, and then further out to the ends of the earth. The point is that we are called to engage in a ministry of witness wherever God is at work in the world – and according to Acts, that would extend the vision to the ends of the earth.

I believe it’s instructive that Acts 28 ends abruptly, without ever telling us what happened to Paul. It’s unfinished nature encourages us to continue the work begun by these early witnesses in our own contexts. And as we read Acts missionally, we will discover that being a witness to God’s transforming presence requires us to cross borders and boundaries, some of which are dividing walls of hostility that have to be taken down (Eph. 2:14). Consider for a moment that on the day of Pentecost the good news went out in the languages of all the nations, bringing to an end the confusion of Babel. Then Philip preached to the Samaritans, a community that lived on the other side of a wall of hostility from the Jewish community, and then Peter preached – with some hesitancy -- to Cornelius, opening the doors to the Gentile world. Paul took that ball and planted new mission stations across Asia and Greece. And in the end, with Paul in a Roman prison, we find ourselves invited to write the next chapter of the story.

As I was thinking about what it means for us to be a witnessing congregation, a couple of examples quickly came to mind, largely because they occurred this past week. Coming first to mind was our hosting of the SOS shelter with CCB. Whether you were in the kitchen, served as a driver, gave resources, or sat and ate with our guests, you were bearing witness in a very real way to God’s love for the world. This annual event, which pulls together the entire congregation, is truly a witness of God’s love that flows out into the community. And, it all runs like clock work – everyone knows their job – and everyone does it with a sense of joy, which is something we talked about last week.

Even as our church was ministering to a part of the community experiencing a deep sense of need, I was asked to speak at a community rally here in Troy. The organizers invited representatives from different parts of the community to speak to the financial crisis affecting the city. I was asked to represent – as best I could – the faith community. The message I shared with the group was a call to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and invited us to concern ourselves with the common good of all. These are but two ways in which we as a congregation let the light of God shine in the community. There are, however, many other possible ways that we can and do bear witness to God’s presence – at work, at play, in the store, and as we volunteer in the community. Wherever we are present, we can shine forth the light of Christ’s love for the world, whether verbally or not.

2. A Witness Empowered by the Holy Spirit

Now, before Jesus leaves the disciples and sets them on their way, he promises them that the Holy Spirit will come and empower their witness to the world. In saying this, Jesus makes it clear that we do not undertake this task on our own. Its success doesn’t depend on us, but on the Spirit who goes with us. That doesn’t mean that we can sit back and do nothing. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take care in what we say and what we do. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t prepare for whatever it is that we’re called to engage in. But it does mean that the Holy Spirit is the one who moves us, pushes us, empowers us, and corrects us when needed. This mission belongs not to us, but to God. Or, to quote Beverly Gaventa, Acts reminds us, “especially in times of malaise and crisis, that [the church] does not belong to itself, but to the God of Israel, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, and the God whose witness continues within, outside, and even in spite of the church.”1

According to Acts 2, this promise was fulfilled at Pentecost, which was a festival that celebrated both the harvest and the renewal of God’s covenant with Israel. On that day, the Spirit descended upon the church, as was promised through the prophet Joel. The Spirit fell on everyone, young and old, male and female, rich and poor, which suggests that there are no barriers that can keep us from proclaiming the good news that God is present and active in the world, except perhaps the ones we erect. For as Peter put it, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

3. A Witness Undertaken in Prayer

Although the disciples first response to Jesus’s disappearance was one of shock, even bewilderment – they stared up into the sky until the heavenly messengers reminded them of their calling – as soon as they remembered Jesus’ command and promise, they returned to the upper room and did two things – they prayed and they filled a spot in their leadership team. That is, they returned home and prepared themselves for what would come next.

They may have been unsure of themselves, maybe even frightened of the consequences of their allegiance to Jesus, but they understood that Jesus was not finished with them yet. So, maybe they weren’t as surprised by Pentecost as we tend to think.

The question for us this morning is: What kind of prayer did they engage in? That is, if they are to be our models for mission, then we should pray in a similar way and for similar things. Although Luke doesn’t tell us exactly what they prayed for or how they prayed -- just that they prayed constantly -- I believe we can read behind the lines here.

It would appear that they prayed with receptive hearts. As Anthony Robinson reminds us, we can’t give what we’ve not received. Therefore:
Before the church is an instrument of grace, it is always a receiver of grace. Thus, we go into the world and encounter others as persons who have like ourselves stood in need of God’s grace and of the Spirit’s power. This imparts a necessary humility to the task of “being my witnesses.”2

And even as we pray expectantly with humble and receptive hearts, we must also pray, as Jürgen Moltmann reminds us, with open eyes. That is, if we’re to bear witness to God’s presence in the world, if that light is going to shine in the darkness, then we must keep our focus on what God is up to in the World, and therefore we must pray watchfully. If we do this, then surely we will be a witnessing congregation that is empowered and guided by the Spirit of God.

1. Beverly Gaventa, Acts, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), p. 54.

2. Anthony B. Robinson and Robert W. Wall, Called to be Church: The Book of Acts for a New Day, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 206), pp. 46-47.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
2oth Sunday after Pentecost
October 25, 2009