"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

Friday, February 28, 2014

Thoughts on Reading Atherstone's 'The Reformation: Faith and Flames'

I consider this a pretty basic introductory text on the Reformation.  At 180 pages, it might appropriately be labeled as a "coffee table book": glossy pages, lots of pictures, some maps, and text boxes within the text.  This is not to imply, however, that the book is unsubstantial in its treatment.

I did not come to the book with any naive notions of the glories of the Reformation; you won't find me celebrating "Reformation Day" on All Hallows' Eve.  I've heard the Reformation described as "tragic necessity" and even that is a bit too generous for me.  Reform was needed, undoubtedly, but the schism that resulted is hardly a cause for celebration.  Even beginning with such a view in mind, however, I was struck by the overall brutality of the period, as presented by Atherstone.  The physical violence perpetrated by Catholic and Protestant (with notable exceptions, like the humanists and the Anabaptists), as well as the constant barrage of vitriolic polemic, made for a pretty depressing read.  By this shall all men know you are My disciples, if you have love for one another?  Not in the sixteenth century.  I haven't studied the Reformation enough to know whether perhaps Atherstone placed undue emphasis on such violence in a book of this size and scope.  However, even if he did, the fact of such things remains.

An exception to this violence and absolutism was to be found in the humanist scholars, so called from the university curriculum studia humanitatis.  They looked hopefully to the future, even as they looked back critically and studiously to the knowledge and traditions of the ancients.  Their motto was ad fontes (back to the sources), and they helped to bring about a rebirth of learning in the Church and society.

Unarguably, the greatest of the humanist scholars, at least in northern Europe, was Desiderius Erasmus.  This Dutch scholar's "vast array of publications included manifestos on education and eloquence, collections of proverbs, devotional and doctrinal treatises, biting satire, and volumes on philology and classical studies."  He was a great student of ancient Christianity, edited the works of Saint Jerome, and in 1516 published a highly influential Greek translation of the New Testament, which was accompanied by a "passionate preface, The Paraclesis, an exhortation for Christians to re-engage with the Bible and a critique of contemporary church practice."  Erasmus had a great love of the Scriptures, and a fervent desire to see them embraced by all, clergy and laity, noble and commoner: "let us embrace it, let us continually occupy ourselves with it, let us fondly kiss it, at length let us die in its embrace, let us be transformed in it."

With his opening up of the Scriptures and the ancient practices of Christianity, and his scathing reprimanding of the Church for its corruption, Erasmus inspired many who would become the early Reformers throughout Europe.  Later in the century, a popular saying claimed that "Erasmus laid the egg which Luther hatched."  Erasmus disputed this claim, saying that "Luther hatched a very different bird."  The two men, though early on mutual admirers, proved to be far too incompatible to become allies.  They were indeed different, in temperament, in theology and method, and in their convictions about the Church and their own place in it.  After a public back and forth debate throughout the 1520s about human freedom and God's sovereignty, the two men's break was more or less complete.  In later years, the ever bombastic Luther was unambiguous in his hostility toward the humanist, going so far as to claim, "I hate Erasmus from the bottom of my heart" and "I consider Erasmus to be the greatest enemy Christ has had these thousand years past."  For his part, Erasmus, the erudite seeker after truth come what may, was ultimately not convinced that a break with Rome was necessary, despite his reputation as a father of the Reformation.  He died a faithful son and communicant of Rome, but surrounded at his deathbed by Protestant friends.  Not one to be co-opted by ecclesial partisans, Erasmus remained ever in the middle, so to speak.  It is a place that many consider cowardly, or unprincipled, or uncommitted, which is rather ironic given the blows those who stand there by conviction are willing to absorb from all sides.  It is a place I seem to often find myself.  Consequently, I find resonant the practicality and honesty of Erasmus when he stated:
"I have never been an apostate from the Catholic Church.  I know that in this Church, which you call the Papist Church, there are many who displease me, but such I see also in your Church.  One bears more easily the evils to which one is accustomed."    

Another notable humanist is the French scholar Sebastian Castellio.  Castellio criticized John Calvin in the aftermath of the trial and execution by burning of the heretic Miguel Servetus in Calvin's Geneva in 1553.  Castellio went so far as to say that any execution for heresy was both pointless and an injustice, since Christians could not even agree in all cases as to what constitutes heresy.  In his treatise, On Heretics, Castellio wrote:
"There is hardly one of all the sects, which today are without number, which does not hold the others to be heretics.  So that if in one city or region you are esteemed a true believer, in the next you will be esteemed a heretic.  So that if anyone today wants to live he must have as many faiths and religions as there are cities or sects, just as a man who travels through the lands has to change his money from day to day ..." 
Castellio went on to declare that, "It would be better to let a hundred, even a thousand heretics live than to put a decent man to death under pretense of heresy."

In one sense, it is not at all surprising that I found myself identifying so with the humanist scholars.  I am a student also, who loves learning and the pursuit of truth, and who believes that an honest and critical examination of the past is of the first importance in such endeavors.  Like them, I do not believe we have anything to fear from the truth, and accordingly, such scholarship is a means of strengthening rather than weakening religion.  On the other hand, I found it ironic that I, who consider myself something of an eccentric traditionalist in my general outlook and personal tastes, should be so drawn to those who were, for their time, the most forward-looking and modern of men.  Perhaps I should not delude myself with thoughts of my having been born in the wrong century; I am, for better or worse, quite a creature of my own time and place after all.

One last and less serious observation: I had never noticed how popular a name was Thomas in sixteenth century England.  Only, like, almost every major player in the English Reformation period: Thomas Wolsey, Thomas More, Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Cromwell ... to mention just a few of the most notable.    

Thursday, February 20, 2014

"When the foundations are being destroyed" or, The Dangers of Plucking an Individual Verse

On my way home from work today, I was listening to a local Christian radio station.  Between a wonderfully sappy, pitch-perfect chorus jingle announcing the station (I really do love those; must be the nostalgia) and the start of whatever program was coming on next, there was a short commentary.  It was one of those 'Today's Bible Minute with Bob' type things, and it started out with this verse:

When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do? ~ Psalm 11:3

I had a suspicion about what was coming next, and I was right.  There followed a brief lecture about how society's changing definition of marriage threatened to erode the millennia old foundation established by God in the beginning.  It was predictable in its simplicity (there is not much room for nuance in a one minute commentary, after all), essentially a 'Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it' approach.  The closing words of the commentator were, "That's God's definition of marriage -- and He's stickin' to it!"

The thing that struck me most, however, was not the futility of attempting to say much of value about such a complex and controversial topic in a one minute commentary.  Rather, it was the use of the opening verse of Scripture.  If the commentator's persuasiveness was not precarious enough already, he set the tone by taking a single verse completely out of context for his purposes.  Here is the eleventh Psalm in its entirety:

In the LORD have I taken refuge;
   how then can you say to me,
   "Fly away like a bird to the hilltop;

For see how the wicked bend the bow
and fit their arrows to the string,
   to shoot from ambush at the true of heart.

When the foundations are being destroyed,
   what can the righteous do?" 

The LORD is in his holy temple;
   the LORD's throne is in heaven.

His eyes behold the inhabited world;
   his piercing eye weighs our worth.

The LORD weighs the righteous as well as the wicked,
   but those who delight in violence he abhors.

Upon the wicked he shall reign coals of fire and
                                 burning sulfur;
   a scorching wind shall be their lot.

For the LORD is righteous;
he delights in righteous deeds;
   and the just shall see his face.

Notice who it is that is bewailing the destruction of the foundations.*  It is not the Psalmist, but rather one to whom the Psalmist is directing his rebuke:  How then can you say to me, "Fly away like a bird ... the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?"  The Psalmist, by contrast, does not panic, because he has taken refuge in the LORD.  The remainder of the Psalm is in witness of God's power, His omniscience, His unassailable throne, and His ultimate judgement; and the just shall see His face.  So, what should the righteous do?  Become a culture warrior and use the democratic process to shore up the foundation of traditional American values?  Say rather, rest secure in the refuge that is our God, confident in the knowledge that He is our true foundation, and the only righteous Judge.

Peace of Christ.

* To clarify, I don't wish to imply that I think foundations are unimportant.  On the contrary, I think it is very important that we understand where we are, how we have arrived here, the beliefs upon which our assumptions are based, etc.  My contention is, rather, with the misapplication of this verse, which causes me to questions the spiritual wisdom of those who would use it in this way.

Friday, February 14, 2014

St. Gregory the Great: Be Not Possessed By Your Possessions

Pope St. Gregory contra materialistic consumerism!  Oh, those Fathers, so ancient and so timeless ...
"I want to advise you to leave everything, but I do not want to be presumptuous.  If therefore you are unable to abandon everything which the world offers, you must so hold those things that are of this world that you may not be held by them in the world; that earthly interests may be possessed, not be the possessor, and that what you have should be under the control of your mind.  Otherwise, if your mind is bound by the love of earthly things, it may itself rather be possessed by its own possessions.  Therefore, let temporal possessions be what you use, eternal things what you desire ...
"To carry out these things, we have a mediator between God and men, our helper, through whom we shall more quickly obtain everything, if we burn with true love for him, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever.  Amen."         ~St Gregory the Great, Book 2, Homily 36


Sunday, February 9, 2014

I Cannot Love Better Than God

A poem by Scott Cairns, from his collection, Philokalia, entitled

The Spiteful Jesus

Not the one whose courtesy
and kiss unsought are nonetheless
bestowed. Instead, the largely
more familiar blasphemy
borne to us in the little boat
that first cracked rock at Plymouth
--petty, plainly man-inflected
demi-god established as a club
with which our paling generations
might be beaten to a bland consistency.

He is angry. He is just. And while
he may have died for us,
it was not gladly. The way
his prophets talk, you'd think
the whole affair had left him
queerly out of sorts, unspeakably
indignant, more than a little
needy, and quick to dish out
just deserts. I saw him when,
as a boy in church, I first
met souls in hell. I made him
for a corrupt, corrupting fiction when
my own father (mortal that he was)
forgave me everything, unasked.

The poem expresses a conviction of mine, which has been a cause of some reflection. I regard it as axiomatic that God is perfection, Ultimate Reality, and the One in whom there is no darkness at all. Any less a concept of God would be a contradiction of who and what God is. Consequently, it is not possible that a man could be more loving than God, or indeed 'more anything' that is good. How is it, then, that we do in fact see men and women who seem to be more compassionate than God? Mere mortals who love unconditionally, even when the love is neither sought nor returned? Who accept with loving embrace the unrepentant sinner? Who forgive without measure, even when no forgiveness has been begged? Is it not enough to answer that, since we do observe such mortals, and to the extent that their behavior surpasses the perceived goodness of God, it must be that our conception of God is 'a corrupting fiction'? I'll confess that I am thinking out loud here, and not very rigorously or systematically, at that. But the discontinuity remains. It is not possible for me to 'out-love' God. So, if I embrace my gay brother in Christ in genuine love, asking nothing of him but that he receive that love in blessing, should I not expect that this love remains but a pale reflection of the full and perfect love which God lavishes on him?

Peace of Christ.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Re-blog: GAFCON statement: Saying 'no' to on-going theological reflection?

In response to a recent GAFCON statement, the blog "Catholicity and Covenant" posted a short reflection which I found well placed and thoughtful.  For me, this is yet further confirmation that, despite my frustrations with TEC, I would not find myself at home in a "continuing Anglican" church.  A church that declares that a mere decade or so is sufficient to pray, study, and reflect over an issue of great importance, and so, in effect, we don't need to waste time on this anymore, is not the place for me.  I am saddened by the extent to which TEC has also moved away from a truly comprehensive and encompassing vision of the Church, in practice if not in theory.  Nevertheless, such a vision still remains in TEC, while I do not think the same could be said of, for example, the ACNA.  For this reason, and bolstered both by my belief in the faithfulness of God and by my conversations with and observations of other young leaders in TEC, I am hopeful for the future of the Episcopal Church as a place where the great broadness of the gospel of our limitless God is grounded in the catholic faith that we have received from the Apostles and witnesses to whom God in Jesus Christ was made manifest.

Read the post from "Catholicity and Covenant" here.