Tuesday, August 22, 2006

They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Intolerance for Sin?

Archbishop Williams apparently thinks intolerance in defense of a very traditional morality is no vice.

But let's start at the beginning. Clearly "unity" and "integrity" are in the eye of the beholder; or at least depend on who's doing the defining, and whose "unity" is meant:

Do you in your heart of hearts ever despair that Anglican unity can be saved?
,,Despair is a very strong word, but there are moments that I really don't know whether it is still possible. I just know that I have been given the task to preserve what unity and integrity there is.''
But it isn't that simple, is it?

Unity in the Church - worldwide - is to you a means of coming closer to the truth. As you put it, 'If we don't stay together, 'we are only following our own local denomination or our personal preferences. Where then do you draw the line? How far can unity be stretched within the boundaries of still being based on the Bible?

In reply to this question Williams starts off with a rebuke of those who argue it is high time the Church accepted gay relationships. Their ideal is the inclusive church. ,,I don't believe inclusion is a value in itself'', says the Archbishop. ,,Welcome is. We welcome people into the Church, we say: 'You can come in, and that decision will change you.' We don't say: 'Come in and we ask no questions.' I do believe conversion means conversion of habits, behaviours, ideas, emotions. The boundaries are determined by what it means to be loyal to Jesus Christ. That means to display in all things the mind of Christ. Paul is always saying this in his letters: Ethics is not a matter of a set of abstract rules, it is a matter of living the mind of Christ.

That applies to sexual ethics; that is why fidelity is important in marriage. You reflect the loyalty of God in Christ. It also concerns the international arena. Christians will always have reconciliation as a priority and refuse to retaliate. By no means everything is negotiable for me. I would not be happy if someone said: Let us discuss the divinity of Christ. That to me seems so constituent of what the Church is.''

We're not getting any closer, though. Ethics is always "a matter of living the mind of Christ"? Good enough. But then, one central problem in the TEC (glossed over but still active) is the elevation of a woman to Presiding Bishop. Yet Jesus clearly had women in his entourage (from the unnamed woman of Mark 14 to the many named women in Jesus' entourage in Luke 8 and thereafter. Clearly acceptance of women as part of Jesus' story grew as the story grew and spread, from Mark in 70 C.E. to Luke's story two decades later. There are almost no characters in John's gospel, except as props for the Paraclete, but when Jesus raises Lazarus, he does so for the sake of Mary and Martha as much as anyone, and they are two of the most fully realized persons in that Gospel. Of course, it is no coincidence that women come to the tomb first, or stay throughout the crucifixion, from Mark's story to John's. Is it sexist to point out women seem to know what is important, and what is not, and so aren't as prone to deny and flee as men? Very well then, I'm sexist.), as did Paul. History, however, has done its best to erase these truths and render the message of Jesus more "orthodox."

And there, precisely, is the problem with "orthodoxy." It is a guide, but not an infallible one. On a very minor point, it is "orthodox" for priests to wear robes. It sets them apart, makes them look "religious." That wasn't the original purpose, though. The traditional alb of priestly garb was the t-shirt and blue jeans of the 1st century. Today it is cinctured with a soft cotton rope or something else equally ornamental (the robes usually have velcro closures). Originally it was hank of rope, necessary to keep the robe closed and the body covered. Priests wore it to emphasize their humility, their identity with the laborers. Imagine your priest today wearing a t-shirt and work boots and blue jeans in the pulpit, you'll get the idea. An unorthodox imagining? Yes, very; but truer to the intent than the tradition and orthodoxy which prescribes priestly garb today. We no longer identify with the humble, we identify with a special class. (Even pastors of mega-churches betray their aspirations; they wear either business attire (suit and silk tie) or "casual clothes," (polo shirt and slacks or maybe chinos). None of us want to look too much like the poor wanderer of Palestine we are supposed to be modeled on.)

And women in positions of religious authority is unorthodox; so the image of Theoklia next to Paul first reflects reality (a woman equal to the apostle), then the reaction (her upraised fingers in blessing are burned off of the plaster), and finally all but erased (no women at all!). Just as women were systematically erased from the Biblical stories (although Luke draws our attention to every one of the expectant mothers between Sara and Mary in his nativity story, and Matthew's geneaology turns on three women, in a chain of men). Women as apostles were, for a brief period, quite orthdox. But today scholars distinguish between Pauline letters and pseudo-Pauline letters in part on the basis of the mention of women as equals. It is such an ahistorical idea that only Paul, the reasoning goes, would include it. A pseudo-Pauline writer would never venture such a radical notion in the name of his authority.

Such is the true history of "orthodoxy." Things as we want them to be, are not necessarily things as God wants them to be. In fact, one of the most unorthodox scenes in the Bible is Ezekiel 8-11. Thomas Cahill thinks one of the "hinges of history" is Abraham leaving Ur and going where God leads him, and it is certainly a radical proposition. But in an age when gods were gods of regions, areas of land, and given temples as houses (God as Creator of the Universe probably developed after the Exile, not before), the idea of God leaving Jerusalem and traveling where God willed, was so radical as to be heretical. And yet Ezekiel records that the "God of Israel" (place as well as people) leaves the city of Jerusalem (having already left the Temple, which was bad enough) and goes to the mountains east of it. The clear message is that God goes where God wills, across all of God's creation. A settled message for us, who cannot conceive of God as tied to one place; but radically unorthodox for Ezekiel and his friends on the banks of the Chebar. Radically liberating; but only after you get over the shock, and who can say how long that took?

Is this one of those times? Am I Ezekiel, come to tell you all what I have seen? No, to the second question; perhaps, to the first. What is now orthodox always begins as unorthodox. Understood from a comfortable distance of time past, it can be seen as a movement always toward greater light and greater liberty, as Chesterton puts it. He writes of Aquinas and Francis:

They were not bringing something new into Christianity, in the sense of something heathen or heretical into Christianity; on the contrary, they were bringing Christianity into Christendom. but they were bringing it back against the pressure of certain historic tendencies, which had hardened into habits in many great schools and authorities in the Christian Church; and they were using tools and weapons which seems to many people to be associated with heresy or heathenry. St. Francis used Nature much as St. Thomas used Aristotle, and to some they seemed to be using a Pagan goddess and a Pagan sage. Saint Thomas Aquinas: "The Dumb Ox," G.K. Chesterton (New York: Doubleday, 1956, p. 29)
Chesterton concludes this passage with what he says will be the central argument of that book: "But it is best to say the truth in its simplest form; that they both reaffirmed the Incarnation, by bring God back to earth." And here is where things get messy.

"Lord, when did we see you?" the sheep and the goats ask plaintively in Matthew's final parable, and the answer is always the same, and has never been limited just to the hungry, the sick, the prisoner. It has always been understood, not legalistically, but inclusively: the Christ is present in everyone. But our calling as Christians is to see the Christ in the least and the lowest, because that reflects the humilty of the Incarnation, the central teaching of Christianity: God with us, Emmanuel. And that is a very inclusive doctrine which already accepts everyone, because it sees in everyone, God. If we ask for bona fides after our service, we are asking God for payment. If we ask for justification, we are asking God to stand justified. This is the central problem. This is, as Frank Zappa might say, the crux of the biscuit.

It's the apostrophe. That was Frank's line; but take it seriously, and consider a moment what an apostrophe does: it signals possession. It signals what we own. Well, what do we own? Christianity? Christian doctrine? Traditions? Orthodoxy? Do we own these things? Or are they passed to us for safe-keeping? Or are they given to us, for our benefit, and the benefit of others? But others, and which others? Those we approve of? Those who keep the traditions as we do, because that's how they were handed on to us, because "we've always done it this way?" Where, then, is there room for the spirit of the living God? Whenever times are at their hardest, their most demanding, their most limited and narrowing, there invades the spirit of God to do a new thing. Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 16:7-16 and 18:1-15); Manoah and his wife (the parents of Samson; Judges 13:3-24); Hannah, the mother of Samuel (1 Samuel 1:1-20); and, of course, Mary, in Luke's gospel. But then, of course, the Hebrew Scriptures abound with stories of God breaking into human lives; and there is Saul on the road to Damascus, and the vision of Peter when he struggles with whether or not to preach to the Gentiles; and we cannot disgregard the Crucifixion, because anyone hanged on a tree was, by Mosaic law, cursed (Deuteronomy 21:23).

Who owns our orthodoxy, then? And how do we fit God into it?

Which is just a preliminary consideration to the statements of Archbishop Williams. "The boundaries are determined by what it means to be loyal to Jesus Christ. That means to display in all things the mind of Christ." I agree; and there have to be boundaries. Who can deny that there must be boundaries? But can there only be on Sordello? Sordello, and my Sordello?

That is the issue of ecclesiology. And it is starkly before the Anglican Communion. But we're no closer to answering that question: what is the "mind of Christ"? How do we define it? How do we know it?

Aquinas and Francis, says Chesterton, defined it in terms of Aristotle and Nature, respectively; two distinctly Pagan (his term) sources. But, as the medieval church especially argued the case, if all things come from God, then even those sources share in the enlightenment on Creation of the God of Abraham (so Dante places Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle in the ante-room to Hell. Born too early to be saved by the Christian church, they cannot merit salvation; but being lights of reason that illuminate the Christian path, they do not deserve damnation, either.) Both were, Chesterton assures us, revolutionaries. Yet Thomistic Natural Law is the center of Catholic doctrine, and the teachings of Francis affected even the state I live in. The Spanish missions in San Antonio were settled by Franciscan monks. So revolutionary were they, they served as an arm of the Spanish government. Such is the constant movement of radical to orthodox. Jesus of Nazareth was killed for being a political troublemaker; the Catholic church now bears the name of that empire. The history of orthodoxy is rich with irony.

Do we get any closer to an answer to this question by arguing about it? Perhaps. But Aquinas presented his arguments in a calm, lucid, and reasonable tone, and Francis presented his by his life. "Preach the gospel. Use words, if necessary," is a phrase attributed to him. Like all apt phrases, if he didn't say it, he should have. Do we argue over this? Or do we live it out? Who is the final arbiter of morality? That's the other question the Archbishop poses:

,,In terms of decision-making the American Church has pushed the boundaries. It has made a decision that is not the decision of the wider body of Christ. In terms of the issue under consideration: there are enough Christians of good faith in every denomination - from evangelical to Roman Catholic - to whom it is not quite so self-evident. Who are not absolutely sure that that we have always read the Bible correctly. They are saying: this is an issue we must talk about. But if we are going to have time to discuss this, prayerfully, thoughtfully, we really don't need people saying: we must change it now. The discussion must not be foreclosed by a radical agenda. The decision hasn't been made yet. Or rather, the tradition and teaching of the Church is what it always was.
And here we are up against the Birmingham Jail problem, and the question of justice. The Archbishop says we must go slowly. The issue then, is, to justify action; and also, to justify inaction. That is, the issue is the question of justice. Which position is just, that is, justifiable? Action; or inaction? And there's the problem of history: it refuses to stand still, to wait on our deliberations.

There is precedent for this. Luther split with the Roman church over the issue of indulgences (among other things), and the doctrine of justification by faith. The Catholic Church eventually stopped the selling of indulgences, and accepted validity of the heretic's doctrine. The Lutheran and Reformed traditions split over the meaning of the eucharist: symbols merely, or true body and blood of Christ mystically transubstantiated, or something in between, neither dully symbolic nor mystically capable of bleeding? It took 500 years (or a Prussian ruler, in the case of the German Evangelical Church), but that rift was finally healed. Members of most Protestant churches are now welcome at each other's tables, having determined at last that we all have the "mind of Christ" we can agree on; at least when it comes to sharing the body and blood of Christ. I have served Christian churches where orthdoxy and tradition once demanded that the men sit on one side of the church, women and children on the other. The nature of ortodoxy is that the unorthodox is always changing it.

And it is the nature of Christians often to "walk apart" from each other. This is as traditional and orthodox as the agreement between Paul and Peter to agree to disagree, and so the church in Jerusalem recognized Paul's mission to the Gentiles. It has been going on for centuries. The "mind of Christ"? Even Peter and Paul couldn't agree on it. It's the reason we have 4 gospels, not just one. It's the reason some scholars study the other gospels, not just the canonical four. Orthodoxy is not a seamless cloth, it's a patchwork quilt. And sometimes, it is the old wineskin, and God is offering us new wine. And, as ever, when God does, or someone thinks God does, some will drink it, and some will not. And if the wine proves to be good, eventually all will drink it. And that time has always come, and is always coming.

But in the meantime, where we always live, we sometimes just have to agree to disagree, and to say the larger church is too large; or just not large enough. And keep struggling to live up to the vision of the basiliea tou theou Jesus taught us: where the first are last, and the last first, and the leader is the servant of all, and humblest of all.

And work on who is excluded from our humility, and how our humility puts us in the seat of judgment.

No comments:

Post a Comment