Monday, October 30, 2006

Serendipity? Synchronicity?

Partly because I agree with Rick:

The gentleman in the originally-cited post is concerned that the Episcopal catechism, which seems to have been carefully drafted with modern sensibilities in mind, is offensive to his post-modern mind. He is looking to see if he can find any communion conformable to himself before forming his own denomination. I do not put him beyond God's mercy or the Church's welcome. But I think his attitude, a very common American one, perhaps the most common, is a stumbling block.
Rick Allen
Partly because I had some time to kill yesterday in the church library. Connecting nothing with nothing, as is my wont, I offer these observations.

Church libraries are like time capsules:

"Echoing Jesus' polemic against the religious institution of his day, Father James Kavanaugh presents a devastating yet deeply moving account of what pharisees and high priest have done in the church of our generation."--Father Gregory Baum, O.S.A.

"One of the most soul-searching and progressive statements I have read in years. It will move millions of hears and minds."--Rabbi Samuel M. Silver, National Chaplain, Jewish War Veterans

"Here is what millions have felt and desperately needed to be said. A superbly written and courageous book. It is the religious book of our generation. This book will move the world."--Mary Harrington Hall, Managing Editor, Psychology Today*

"It is the most powerful, most persuasive plea of this kind that I have ever read."--Rev. Richard C. Grant, Retired Professor, Union Theological Seminary

The book? A Modern Priest Looks at his Outdated Church, by Father James Kavanaugh (New York: Trident Press 1967) Yes, James Kavanaugh the poet. Apparently his poetry (no comment) had more impact on the world than his theological views. But the importance of hype in American culture is not really the point here (but it is the elephant in the room, isn't it? I'm intrigued by the call of humility of Christianity and the call to hyperbole of American culture, especially since we are "a Christian nation." But, as usual, I digress...) Kavanaugh obviously was not the Bishop Spong of his generation, and more than Bishop Spong speaks for any identifiable generation. What really struck me was how quaint things look from only a short distance.

3 years before publishing this book, as Kavanaugh himself admits in it, he published a pseudonymous article in The Saturday Evening Post (back when that was the magazine in America; even I still mourn its demise, though probably I shouldn't), about why he, a Catholic priest, should be allowed to marry. That one, of course, is still around; the controversy, I mean. It was the hype on the book jacket (quoted above) that really caught my attention. Clearly the more things change...

..Except things have changed. Another book on the shelf was a history of the Episcopal Church (to be clear, the one in America, not to be confused with the Anglican Communion). This I needed to read, so I sat down with it, and quickly found a reference to another book I'd just seen on the shelf (small world, indeed!): The Secular Meaning of the Gospel: An Original Enquiry, by Paul M. Van Buren. This title, the history book told me, had gained Van Buren some notoreity, not to say almost infamy, and gotten him dubbed a "death of God" theologian. As all of that was recent history for the history book, little more was said. But Van Buren's book, published in 1963, had a lot more to say.

In the introduction alone there are references to Rudolf Bultmann, Shubert Ogden (one of Bultmann's students), Martin Heidegger, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. This is a fairly serious attempt at theology for the non-theologian. Van Buren starts, as everyone did, wiht Bultmann's critique of theology by challenging modern humanity's ability to assimilate a 1st century world view in which heaven could be understand in terms of 7 ascending spheres and God's transcendence cannot be decribed in terms of the modern understanding of the world. To encapsulate this, he starts with a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Honesty demands that we recognize that we must live in the world as if there were no God. And this is just what we do recognize--before God! God himself drives us to this realization.--God makes us know that we must live as men who can get along without Him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34)! We stand continually in the presence of the God who makes us live in the world without the God-hypothesis."
(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Widerstand und Ergebung (Munich: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1951), p. 241, tr. Paul Van Buren, quoted in Paul M. Van Buren, The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (New York, The Macmillan Company 1963), p. 1.

You can see where the "Death of God" label came from. In fact, though I haven't studied it (it was considered obsolete shortly after it was labeled), this is probably where it started: with the Lutheran theologian who proclaimed the absolute necessity of discipleships and who plotted to kill Hitler. Ironies abound.

Van Buren represents the theologians of the 1960's who were concerned that "modernity" was leaving them behind. But, it turns out, the future isn't what it used to be. Part of that is attributable, in part no doubt, to faulty analysis. Despite the explicit reliance of Bultmann on Kierkegaard in the former's magnum opus, The Gospel of John, there is no mention of Kierkegaard in this book at all. Those studies were just about to break forth and institute changes Van Buren and the theologians of his time could not foresee. But the other cause is just as unforeseeable: these theologians, seeking to respond to reality, also sought to reshape it. So they pushed reality: and reality pushed back.

Some of that is just failure of vision. You can't read Niebuhr's work in the 1950's and catch even a glimmer of the Civil Rights movement, and while King clearly read Niebuhr in seminary (as Taylor Branch records), he doesn't often cite Niebuhr or Bonhoeffer in his speeches or letters, except to drive a point home to his fellow pastors about the importance of justice. No one who marched in the South was discussing the "Death of God" as a motivation for their activism. Neither, of course, would they have gone far listening to the Gospel as preached by Jerry Falwell or Joel Osteen. But the assumption that modern man was forged in the image of either Immanuel Kant (Van Buren mentions the Idealist philosophers of Germany) or phenomenology (Van Buren mentions Heidegger, but Sartre and Levinas and French phenomenology would soon rush the stage) or Anglo-American empiricism, simply hasn't proven true.

And that's the fight many of us are still fighting. Having chosen sides with either Dawkins-Dennett-Sam Harris, Spong-Crossan-Borg, or Falwell-Osteen-Dobson, we continue to fight over the "soul" of "modern humanity." But is that the fight at all? Given our propensity for hype and outrageous categorical statements, is perhaps the problem one of our own making?

*I can't help but note I think I read that encomium, in a review of Sam Harris' The End of Faith. Obviously going in a different direction, but basically the same idea.

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