"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Thinking About the Limits of Human Knowledge, the Catholic Tradition, and Resting in God

O LORD, I am not proud;
   I have no haughty looks.
I do not occupy myself with great matters,
   or with things that are too hard for me.
But I still my soul and make it quiet,
like a child upon its mother's breast;
   my soul is quieted within me.
O Israel, wait upon the LORD,
   from this time forth for evermore.
~Psalm 131

Sometimes, when I'm reading through the online world of blogs, I start feeling pretty dumb.  There are a lot of people who know a lot more than I do, even in those fields of knowledge where I focus my energies (e.g. history, theology, ecclesiology, literature, etc.), to say nothing of all those important topics about which I know very little indeed (e.g. biology, medicine, psychology, mathematics, economics, all things mechanical, ad infinitum).  It can be a bit overwhelming, particularly today, living as we do in the information age.

Recently, while considering the futility of attempting to learn everything, the following passage from Don Miller's Blue Like Jazz came to mind.
My most recent faith struggle is not one of intellect.  I don't really do that anymore.  Sooner or later you just figure out there are some guys who don't believe in God and they can prove He doesn't exist, and some other guys who do believe in God and they can prove He does exist, and the argument stopped being about God a long time ago and now it's about who is smarter, and honestly I don't care.  I don't believe I will ever walk away from God for intellectual reasons.  Who knows anything, anyway?  If I walk away from Him, and please pray that I never do, I will walk away for social reasons, identity reasons, deep emotional reasons, the same reasons that any of us do anything.
This was one of those passages that grabbed me and stuck with me.  One does have to be careful about taking this kind of sentiment too far, and simply dismissing all rational and rigorous thinking as unimportant.  I certainly don't believe that; in fact, I place great value on the life of the mind, and intellectualism in the best sense of the word.  And yet I do think the intellect can take one only so far, and that at some point we all have to say, 'well, I guess I really can't figure it all out', and neither can anyone else, no matter how many years we devote to learning.  There will always be more to learn, and there will always be areas in which people can't seem to agree, with compelling arguments on both sides.  I think this is particularly true in matters of religion.  I consider myself to be pretty orthodox as regards matters of faith and doctrine (even though I'm an Episcopalian, gasp!), but I have to admit that I really identify with Miller when he asks, 'Who knows anything anyway?'  I think this is why I have always felt so at home in the Anglican tradition.  Despite my own adherence to orthodoxy, I am ever open to the possibility that I could be totally wrong about all this stuff.  I don't view this as a lack of faith on my part, but simply as intellectual honesty.  I can make definitive declarations about the nature and reality of God all I want, but really, what do I know?  If I'm honest, I have to say that in all these things, I do not know, but rather I believe. 

Although this realization has the potential to be frustrating (and, if taken to extremes, to degenerate into a kind of nihilism), it can also be incredibly liberating.  God doesn't expect me to know everything.  He does expect me to do the best I honestly can with what I have been given, and to ever be wrestling and seeking for truth (which I do confidently in the belief that 'He is not far from each one of us').  That I can do.  Incidentally, I think there is a correlation between my coming to this realization and my being increasingly drawn to a more catholic (as opposed to a more Protestant, reformed) understanding of the Church.  It takes much of the pressure off of the individual.  (I think of the times I've heard preachers say something like, 'Don't take my word for it; go look up the chapter and verse yourself.'  This seems to imply that we should not trust the pastor, that we should not trust anyone.  What kind of community is that?)  I do not have to go it alone, compelling my very limited intellect to serve as my own personal pope, seeking to interpret the Scriptures verse by verse in the isolation of my own study.  Rather, I am simply one of a great communion of saints, founded on the cornerstone of Jesus Christ, built up by the apostles, and continuing through the centuries down to today to be 'built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood'. This is not to say that individuals, and even the Church corporate, can never err.  We are still human, after all (and this is another reason why I remain at home in Anglican Christianity with its concept of a 'reformed catholicism', comprehensively drawing on the riches of catholic tradition tempered by an acknowledgment of the need for continual renewal amidst human failings and advances in knowledge that result in significant changes for societies and individuals).  But I nevertheless take great comfort in being able to lean on the centuries-worn traditions that have strengthened countless Christians before me.  I will continue to struggle in a God-ward direction, but along the way I can trust that I am walking a path that many have trod before, even in those moments when my own doubts and shortcomings are most apparent.

I was hesitant to begin this post with Psalm 131.  I've always loved this Psalm, but I think it easily opens one up to charges of a unenviable sort of 'blind faith' that is complacent and un-seeking, and to the oft-heard 'religion as a crutch'.  As already stated, I believe strongly that the Christian life should be one of continual seeking after truth, pressing further into God; i.e an inquiring faith. As to the 'crutch' criticism, I would ask: What sort of critic ridicules a wounded man for leaning upon a needed support?  And how much more absurd when one recognizes that all alike are wounded?  As Hemingway observed, 'The world breaks everyone'.  Those who deny the woundedness of their own human nature are either naive or dishonest.  Much as we rugged individualists are loathe to admit it, none of us are truly independent.  True health and wholeness are dependent upon the love and support of others: family, friends, and ultimately (though often unseen and unacknowledged) upon God.  Only when we confess this can we begin to live with peace and fulfillment.  For myself, I count it wisdom to join with the Psalmist in recognizing that there are indeed some things that are too hard for me and, owing to the finite nature of this mortal life, there will sometimes be great matters about which I will choose to not occupy myself.  For surely now more than ever we need to be reminded to occasionally still and quiet our souls, like a child upon its mother's breast.      


A Prayer for Guidance
O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and light riseth up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what thou wouldest have us to do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices, and that in thy light we may see light, and in thy straight path may not stumble; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Lead Us Not Into Temptation

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.
~Collect for the First Sunday in Lent

Last Sunday, we heard St. Luke's account of how Jesus was "led about by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil."  The Daily Office readings from the Letter to the Hebrews for this week have built upon this theme.  In chapter two, the writer to the Hebrews says, "Since then the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil ... for since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted."

Saint Augustine writes,
Our pilgrim life here on earth cannot be without temptation for it is through temptation that we make progress and it is only by being tempted that we come to know ourselves.  We cannot win our crown unless we overcome, and we cannot overcome unless we enter the contest, and there is no contest unless we have an enemy and the temptations he brings. (Discourse on Psalm 60)
I think these words have particular power today, at a time when many, even within the Church, are reluctant to speak of either sin or the devil.  Given that the Church in times past has, in my opinion, sometimes overemphasized the same makes this understandable, but not justified.  For it is indeed hard to separate sin (not simply vague, impersonal corruption in which we are stained by association, but personal, willful evil which I myself commit) and the devil (not just a personified symbol of evil, but a spiritual reality, an enemy against whom we wage battle by the grace and in the power of Jesus) from the New Testament, and the Gospels in particular.  I'm reminded of H. Richard Nieburh's famous criticism that "A God without wrath brought a people without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross."  Incidentally, praying the Great Litany (BCP, pg. 148-155) is a good antidote for this kind of delusion.

But lest, while being "assaulted by many temptations", we start to get discouraged, we do well to bear in mind that this battle has already been won.  The good news is that Christ has already overcome the world, and He that is now within us who believe is greater than the evil one.  Augustine continues:  
When he willed to be tempted by the devil, he figuratively transferred us into himself.  We have just read in the gospel that our Lord Jesus Christ was tempted in the desert by the devil and this is exactly what happened.  In Christ you were being tempted because Christ had his human flesh from you, just as he won salvation for you from himself.  He received death from you, just as he gained life from himself for you.  From you he received reproaches and from himself for you he gained glory and honour.  In the same way he suffered the temptation for you and he won from himself the victory for you.  If we have been tempted in him, in him we conquer the devil.  Do you notice that Christ has been tempted and fail to notice that he overcame the temptation?  Recognize your own self, tempted in him and conquering also in him.  He might have avoided the devil completely but, had he not been tempted, he would have failed to give you the lesson of conquering when you are tempted.
So, in this, as in all things, we have in Christ our supreme example. But more than an example, by Christ's Incarnation, we have become joined to Him by faith. He takes our weaknesses and transfers to us His victory. "For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end" (Hebrews 3:14). It is because of this that we live in victory, even as we acknowledge in this penitential season of Lent that "our pilgrim life here on earth cannot be without temptation." As the writer to the Hebrews assures us in closing chapter four,
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.  For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.  Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need.


Friday, February 15, 2013

Acknowledging Our Wretchedness

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.
~Collect for Ash Wednesday, BCP

I attended the Ash Wednesday liturgy at my church this week.  I make a very conscious effort to live into the Church year, observing the seasonal feasts and fasts, and so I generally look forward to Ash Wednesday.  It's difficult for me to imagine beginning my Lenten journey without this very public and clear inauguration, with its call "to the observance of a holy Lent ... to make a right beginning of repentance..."  And yet it's not an easy service, even for one accustomed to it.  The opening collect of the liturgy doesn't dance around the issue: this is a time of "lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness".  We then read the appointed Old Testament reading from Joel, chapter 2:

Blow a trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
For the day of the LORD is coming; surely it is near.
A day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness ...
"Yet even now," declares the LORD,
"Return to me with all your heart, 
And with fasting, weeping, and mourning;
And rend your heart and not your garments."

Not exactly the way to pack 'em into the pews!  And yet, I do love this liturgy.  It is honest, and it helps me to live more honestly.  It does not tell me what I want to hear, but rather what I know to be true within my own depraved heart and my own weak body.  After the invitation to a holy Lent, the priest prays the following over the ashes to be imposed:

Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

On Ash Wednesday, and throughout Lent, the Church is called to remember that it is only through Christ that we are raised to life in glory.  By ourselves, we are truly wretched, and without hope.  And even now, we who have been born anew in Christ remain here in this vale of tears.  Though we do experience joy in Christ in this life, we still look ever forward to that place where we "shall know fully, just as (we) have been fully known" and where "there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away."  But we do well to remember that we are not there yet.

I have always been one to look for the beauty in life,and I do believe it is real and ever present, a gift of God to His children.  But due to some life circumstances in my family over this past year, I have become more personally aware that this is also true of pain.  Pain is real, and deep, and ever present in the world.  It touches every human in ways that are often difficult to comprehend, and sometimes there is no healing, at least not in full.  No one is exempt; pain and suffering are as inevitable as death itself.  Christians are not being helpful if we refuse to acknowledge this reality.  (A case in point: K-LOVE Christian radio.  God bless them for the good they do, but honestly I just can only take so much of "the positive alternative".  And it's precisely because it is all positive, all the time; I find that lack of proportion unreal, even (unintentionally) dishonest.  "God is so good and Jesus loves you, so turn that frown upside-down!  No more pain, confusion, or sorrow!"  I'm sorry, but that is not real life, even for the Christian.)  But on Ash Wednesday, the Church does acknowledge this reality.  We acknowledge our sin and failure, our frailty and brokenness; we acknowledge our mortality.

Sorrows are inevitable, but the Christian can embrace suffering, knowing that Christ Jesus has already embraced all sorrow and suffering, even unto death.  In this, we draw near to Him and He draws near to us. And even in Lent we live in joyful hope and expectation, looking forward to Easter morning in forty days, itself but a foretaste of the full joy that awaits us on the Eighth Day, when all will be made new.

But we are not there yet.

Peace, and may you be blessed with a holy Lent.


Saturday, February 9, 2013

Responding to the Call, and Believing What We Pray in the Magnificat

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
     for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will called me blessed:
     the Almighty has done great things for me,
     and holy is his name.
He has mercy on those who fear him 
     in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, 
     he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
     and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
     and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel,
     for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers,
     to Abraham and his children for ever.

I am currently reading On Being a Priest Today, by Rosalind Brown and Christopher Cocksworth.  In Chapter 3, "On Being for God", the authors begin by referencing the call of Moses, "the father of ministry by grace through faith."  When confronted with the call of God in the Burning Bush,
Moses' response was archetypal, echoed throughout the generations of calls to ministry: 'Who am I that I should go?' (Exodus 3:12).  God's reply to Moses is equally foundational and remains the word to all who have been called: 'I will be with you; and this shall be a sign for you that is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain' (Exodus 3:12).  Moses' response is a statement of his own weakness.  God's response is a promise of his presence -- a promise that will be known to be true only in its believing, only in obeying the call, only in the doing of ministry.
The authors point out that it is Moses' very recognition of his own unworthiness that validates the call of God on his life.  It is true that Moses, in himself, is not fit to fulfill such a high and holy calling; no one is.  It is when an individual realizes this, however, that he or she is fit to be used as an instrument of God, through which He will accomplish great and wondrous things.  If Moses is the father of ministry by grace through faith, the Church may justly look to Mary as the Mother of all who say 'yes' to God.  Brown and Cocksworth continue:
Moses' song exalts the Lord as the true God who is able to accomplish the unexpected.  It is the same key in which Hannah, Mary, and other biblical characters sang.  'There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you,' sings Hannah, no one 'raises up the poor from the dust' and makes the 'barren bear seven children' (I Samuel 2:2).  Mary's soul, too, 'proclaims the greatness of the Lord' who has 'looked with favor on his lowly servant' (Luke 1:46-48).  The Daily Office invites us to sing these familiar words of the Magnificat each evening as we gather the day before God in prayer.  The day may have felt very unproductive.  The powerful forces of the world may have seemed secure on their thrones and we, feeble against them.  But the theological truth in the strange kenotic workings of God is that even on this day, when our ministry has seemed at its most barren, God has done great things for us and through us, simply because, with Mary, our faith has said 'Here am I, the servant of the Lord' (Luke 1:38).  
Be encouraged, for my Father and your Father is working until now, and Jesus has overcome the world!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Book Review: "Why Christianity Must Change or Die"

Not long ago, I read John Shelby Spong's Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile, in large part because a good friend of mine is quite a fan of Spong. I had not previously read anything of his, other than short excerpts or statements here and there. I knew him by reputation, of course, and so was wary, but it's never right to criticize someone without giving them a fair hearing, so I had mostly reserved judgment - until now.

Honestly, I had to force myself to finish it. It's not that I hate 'that heretic Spong'; I found in reading him that I could at least appreciate his forthright approach, and he certainly seems a bold and unconventional thinker. And it wasn't so much that I found his style irksome and overly wordy, although there was that (for example, the frequency with which, about every page or so, he begins or ends a thought with wording to the effect of 'but I must stress that this God is not the theistic, external God of traditional Christianity, because that God is unarguably dead, and all the outdated assumptions of theistic religion are simply no longer operable in our postmodern world').

No, the reason it was such a struggle for me to get through this book could be summed up in a statement of Karl Barth's: 'Belief cannot argue with unbelief, it can only preach to it.' I discovered pretty quickly that it was going to be difficult, if not impossible, for me to enter into a conversation with Spong, because the entire book is based on a premise with which I disagree (the aforementioned 'theisic God is dead' premise). The modern era has indeed issued challenges to many of the traditional doctrines and assumptions of the Christian faith, and the Church, in consequence, has changed significantly over the last two centuries. But I'm simply not convinced that these advances in human knowledge have rendered the historic, orthodox assertions of the Church to be entirely obsolete, and I don't think Spong did a very good job of presenting a convincing picture to the contrary. He mostly just mentioned a few major developments (e.g. Copernican revolution, Darwin's Origin of Species, etc.) and then proceeded to assume that "theism is no more." For example, Spong repeats numerous times his belief that our modern knowledge of the cosmic order has drained all significance from the incarnation, the ascension, the afterlife, etc. Here is an excerpt from page 205:
"There appears to be no place in our universe for heaven. It has been radically dislocated from its ancient spot just beyond the clouds. If heaven is no longer a locatable concept, then we have to recognize that neither is God, since heaven was God's abode."
This seems to me to be overly simplistic, to say the least. Not reason enough for me to throw out 2000 years of spiritual depth, experience, and development.

I would not, therefore, say that this book presented a challenge to my Christian faith, per se. However, as an individual who has grown up and found expression for that faith in the Anglican tradition, it did give me cause for concern (among other reasons) about the current and future state of the Episcopal Church. Spong was a long-time bishop of that church. As such, he took sacred vows, before God and the Church, to "guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church" and "to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church" (from The Book of Common Prayer: Ordination of a Bishop). At his ordination, he publicly led all present in affirming the creed, the very words that he used in the opening of this book as a demonstration of how those very essential and foundational beliefs of the Church are no longer believable. Apart from what this may imply about Spong's character, the more pointed concern for me is what it says about the church that would elect and confirm him as bishop, and subsequently allow him to continue in that very influential office.

Ultimately, I guess I didn't enjoy this book because it was simply not written for me. I am not a "believer in exile." But I am also neither an ignorant, unthinking pew occupant, nor an angry, dishonest reactionary, fearful about my ability to maintain an unjust status quo institution. Unfortunately, those three types seemed to be the only ones conceivable to Spong in this book.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Musing on Literature and T.S. Eliot's "Journey of the Magi"

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for 
Birth or Death?  There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt.  I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
~ from Journey of the Magi by T.S. Eliot

In keeping with my resolution to read and reflect over more poetry this year, I recently returned to this perennial favorite.  Lent is fast approaching, but it is still Epiphany season, and so a fitting time to read Journey of the Magi.  (You can hear Eliot read it himself by clicking here.)

Last weekend I attended the wonderful annual symposium sponsored by the Eighth Day Institute in Wichita.  A theme that was touched on by several speakers in different ways was that of allowing the written word to speak for itself.  That is to say, whether in a poem, a short story, or a novel, good writers do not hide the meaning locked away behind a maze of words.  The words are not something to be figured out in order to arrive at a definitive solution, as in an algebraic equation.  The word itself is the message; the poet says what he wants to say in the words of the poem; the novel means what the novelist wrote (if she had wanted to say something else, she would have written something else).  Incidentally, one of the speakers observed that this approach to literature is thoroughly incarnational.  Jesus, the eternal Word, does not offer cryptic sayings to point us to the truth; rather, He is the Truth.

Such a view of literature, to my mind, elicits two quite different responses.  One might say that there is no value at all in analyzing any writing, since there is nothing more to be said.  But I think one might also say, on the contrary, that while the word simply is, it can lead one in any number of directions.  Precisely because there is no scientifically deduced correct interpretation of the true meaning of a poem, one is freed to allow the poem to speak whatever it will to each individual.  In this light, the same poem may speak quite differently to two different readers, and each may nonetheless be enriched and feel their reading to be legitimate.

Eliot's Journey of the Magi is not, in my opinion, a difficult poem to read and understand (though many of his other poems are).  And yet the final line does puzzle me.  I should be glad of another death.  I'm not sure what Eliot was thinking when he wrote that, but as I've just stated, that's not really the point.  What I do know is that the line gives me cause for reflection, because I can imagine at least three thoroughly different ways of understanding it.  Having experienced the manifestation of the Christ Child, the life of the magus has shifted irrevocably.  Even now, many years after the event, the magus ponders it, seeks to make sense of it.  He "would do it all again", despite the fact that "this Birth was hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death."  I should be glad of another death.  Was the experience such an agony that the magus wishes it could have been otherwise, that the revelation of this discomfiting, life-altering truth had come in some gentler, less painful fashion?  But what could be gentler than a child in the arms of his mother?  Or was the experience so sweet, so incomparably beautiful, that the memory of it haunts him still, moves him with a desire to go back and make that journey again?  Oh, to experience again this "death" that was the beginning of true life.  But perhaps the magus is not looking back at all; perhaps he looks forward.  Perhaps he now eagerly awaits the death that comes to all men, for he has realized that it is only by that death that he will enter into the new dispensation, and there find himself at home.