Monday, January 24, 2011

2 popular distortions of authentic Christianity: Dumping the Non-Essential

"The Scriptures tell us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go." - Galileo

"The Greatest Commandment in the law is this, 'Hear O' Israel the Lord our God is one Lord, thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, mind and strength'; and the second is like unto it - thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." - Jesus of Nazareth

"One commandment I give to you, that you Love one another..." - Jesus of Nazareth

It's been some while now since I have posted an article here, but the writing fit has taken hold again in light of recent conversations, and facebook or email debates. The issue that has me, in Hawthorne's phrase, "seizing the public by the button" is the matter of certain fundamentalist distortions of the Christian faith that provide ammunition to skeptics and rational critics of orthodox Christianity, present a false picture of authentic New Testament Christianity to ordinary non-believers, and burden genuine - but often theologically unsophisticated - Christian disciples with a load of hogswallow unnecessary for them to bear.

Two issues in particular it is my hope to debunk as being a valid component of "essential" Christian teaching:
1. A Scientific Creationist interpretation of the book of Genesis.
2. That the Scriptures are a prescriptive handbook of moral "rules" for modern living.

When the Roman Catholic Church placed Galileo on trial for heresy in the year 1600 - for asserting the Copernican theory of a Helio-centric Solar System as over against the offical Ptolemaic Geo-centric model formally asserted by the Church - it is attributed to him that he made the remark "Holy Scripture tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go." He made a point which even the Protestant reformers of his time, such as John Calvin and Martin Luther had already understood rather well, which was that it was the purpose of Scripture to infallibly reveal the will of God in "all things necessary to salvation" (as affirmed in both the 39 Articles of Faith of the Church of England, 1578 and in 16th century Lutheran confessions) and in "all matters of faith and practice" (Westminster Confession, 1647) and not to be used as source for scientific truth. Unlike some of their Catholic counterparts whose hands were tied by conformity to the official dogma of their Church, the theologians of the Reformation were remarkably open to the discoveries of the modern science of their day, and not of a mind to view ancient sacred literature outside of its own historical frame of reference.

The key to understanding Genesis without either undermining ones faith in biblical authority and veracity, and at the same time without committing the intellectual suicide of abandoning rational evidence and scientific fact wholesale, is summed up in one word - Cosmology. "Cosmology" refers to the basic model of the universe generally accepted by the learned of a particular time. Our modern cosmology is informed by the advanced evidence gathering technology now available to us, such as observatory and radio telescopes, satellites, imagery analysis etc. We pretty much know that our solar system is but a small and insignificant component of a vast universe so incomprehensibly large as to be beyond our ability to measure its limits, and that its age is measured in multiple billions of years. But at the time the book of Genesis was originally written, its Hebrew authors understood the universe in terms of a very different cosmology based on far more limited knowledge of the facts. The cosmology accepted by the writers of the Old Testament was a flat earth and a dome sky, this was as true and factually obvious to them as our modern picture of the universe is to us. The author of Genesis was therefore being completely truthful when he wrote the account of Creation, as he merely acted according to the best information he had available. Whoever wrote Genesis (authorship is traditionally attributed to Moses but this is historically unlikely - it was quite common for editorial compilers of ancient texts to attribute authorship to a hero of the past) was not present when the events about which he writes occurred, but very likely reduced to written form a received oral tradition handed down through generations, and consistent with the accepted cosmological model of the time.

Virtually all contemporary Old Testament scholars - including even very conservative ones of good academic reputation - generally recognize that the "Creation Epic" in Genesis (Gen. chapters 1 - 11 - including not only the Creation story, but the story of Noah and the Flood, and of Nimrod and the Tower of Babel) was likely not written to be interpreted as a literal historical account, but as a narrative - a story with a central theme - this narrative having as its intention the revealing of certain theological truths: namely, that the universe was created by God, that God then created human beings, but that human beings through sin had repeatedly fallen and rebelled against God and were therefore in need of either judgment or of redemption and deliverence. According to most conservative Old Testament scholarship, only after Genesis 12:1 - the call of Araham - does Scripture begin to submit itself to empirical historical analysis. Recognizing the Creation-story in Genesis as a non-historical epic narrative need not undermine our faith in biblical authority.

The second major stumbling block to genuine Christian faith within the popular "folk theology" of American conservative Christianity is the notion that moral instructions given in New Testament Scripture are applicable to a modern cultural context. That the New Testament is somehow a "rule book" which "good" Christians are obliged to follow to authentically practice their faith. Most Christians who have any sort of mature understanding of the Bible are aware that the 612 ordinances of the ancient Old Testament Hebrew law-code "The Law of Moses" are not applicable to New Testament Gentile Christians. How many times have we heard the expression (paraphrasing from the Apostle Paul), "We are not under 'the law,' we are under grace." However it seems when it comes to the instructions given in the letters of the Apostle Paul to various early New Testament Christian church-communities we Christians are in danger of erecting our very own New Testament "Law of Paul." This Pauline legalism has reached a point where some have even politicized it, and seek to erect within our pluralistic Republic a theocratic commonwealth mandating these moral rules as the law of the land.

The problem here is that a "rule-ethic" inherited from our Puritan forbears has displaced what some New Testament scholars refer to as the "Love-Ethic" of Christ. The New Testament is - like the Old Testament creation story - also a "narrative." Although in this case I think it is certainly OK for people of faith to assume that this narrative - being based as it is on direct testimonial accounts of actual observers and particpants to that which is recorded - does have a solid historical foundation. This narrative has for its theme the Gospel (i.e. Good News) of Jesus Christ, the good news of salvation in His name and the coming Kingdom of God under His rule. However, the specific moral instructions that Paul gives to churches really must be seen in light of what is called cultural relativism - that is to say that they are relative to the cultural context of the time in which they are given and are not really to be interpreted as applicable to our modern cultural setting. For example, in Pauls day - and according to the sort of instruction he gives - women were regarded as subordinate to men, and slavery was considered a justifiable practice as long as "slaves were treated well" - it seems doubtful to me that such standards could be taken seriously by any reasonable person in a modern setting.

In asserting the "cultural relativism" in Paul, I am not asserting moral relativism. I am certainly among those Christians who believe that we live in a moral universe where their exists a definite standard of right and wrong. My argument however is that right and wrong for Christians is not defined by prescriptive sets of rules that must be changed and adapted to different cultural circumstances. Rules change from place to place and generation to generation and it makes no sense to be locked into a particular legalistic and Puritannical model of morality that is founded upon a 2,000 year old set of local church regulations from Greece and Asia Minor. Right and wrong for Christians has always been defined by one principle Love. Specifically self-sacrificial love as modeled for us in Christ's atonement on the cross. How the "love-ethic" of Christ is applied in terms of actual practice may change according to the particular situation that requires it, but in essence it is always about seeking the highest welfare of its object and is always the opposite of selfishness.

This "Love-Ethic" is the central theme of the whole New Testament narrative - and authentic Christianity is best understood by getting a grip on this idea and what it means. Jesus' account of the final judgment given in chapter 25 of Matthews Gospel articulates with great clarity upon what basis the true spiritual status of the "sheep" and "goats" is to be evaluated - compassion - which is none other than love in action. Those who are among the elect are proved to have been compassionate "to the least of these" the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, whereas those who "go away to judgment" (separated from the Kingdom of God - which is what the word "Hell" really and simply means) are those who have been proved to have failed in this area. When Jesus was pointedly asked, "What is the Greatest Commandment in the Law" he offered that there were really two, which were so comingled together that to do the one was to do the other, and that together they summed up the whole meaning and spirit of the law - and flatly trumped a too Pharisee-like preoccupation with the letter of it:
" shall love the lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and the second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

History vs. Theology

"One man's theology is another man's belly laugh."

- from Robert Heinlein's The Notebooks of Lazarus Long

"Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows."

- from George Orwell's 1984

Clearly as a Christian I don't really subscribe to SF writer Heinlein's anti-religious bias, but the quote above from his alter-ego Lazarus Long does raise a point about the discipline of theology that I rather do embrace - which is simply that theology (the word literally broken down and translated from its root syllables simply means "talk about God") is fundamentally speculative in its nature and therefore as a source of "truth" is entirely subjective.

Now that the 40 days of Lent are over, I have returned to posting entries to my blog, and of late the issue I have been wrestling with (as my last entry from February indicates) is the age-old dichotomy between faith and reason. We are currently at the dawn of what many in the intellectual community are now calling the "post-modern" age, which in very over-simplified terms simply means that reason - the rational approach to thought and to truth, which has dominated scientific and philosophical dialogue and inquiry in Western civilization since about the 17th century - has gone right out of fashion. It has become the vogue in certain circles these days to suggest that there is "no privileged language" no "grand narrative" for describing reality - not even the language or "narrative" of science.

I am among those who see this development as a serious problem with the potential of undermining our whole civilization, and of very possibly opening the floodgates to any one of an assortment of Orwellian tyrannies either political or religious. It is the nature of totalitarian or theocratic societies - be this the Soviet Union under Stalin, or the Islamic theocracy in contemporary Iran - to re-define truth and reality in terms congenial to the powers that be, even if contrary to self-evident facts. Such societies often even re-write history, "doctor up" records, and deconstruct language to propogate their totalistic world-view and suit their monopoly on power. This was precisely the theme of George Orwell's seminal novel of totalitarian political dystopia, 1984 - first published in England after World War II. Orwell once remarked that "The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history" and in fact our own generation seems given to taking a flying leap from the rational, and to an endorsement of the intellectual suicide of rejecting long accepted notions of fact or of evidence as a foundation for arriving at answers about the nature of reality. A new age of pre-modern superstition threatens to undermine the modern "Age of Reason" of four centuries standing. A new pre-modernism which in the current post-modern climate now enjoys an intellectual currency that would have been laughed out of court in any serious academic circles just a few decades ago.

It's true that since the 60's (a time when modern reason still reigned supreme without a serious rival in the intellectual and academic world) we have already seen the re-emergence and widespread popularity of ancient pagan folk beliefs such as witchcraft and tribal shamanism, astrology etc. and beginning in the 70's the rise of the biblical fundamentalism of the Religious Right that has held a chillingly dominant role in American political discourse for the last 30 years. Meantime, and especially since the 1980's, in the Near East the rise of radical fundamentalist Islam with its wholesale militant rejection of Western modernity threatens the peace of the whole world, and is also actually undermining the fabric of Arabic and Islamic culture itself into the bargain. Yet in this climate and in some very intellectually sophisticated circles one increasingly hears these days about the invalidity of "foundationalism." The notion of any concrete factual or evidentiary basis for any particular belief system is being debunked and discredited. I am fundamentally at odds with this tendency, and at least where the discipline of theology is concerned, this puts me in an increasingly isolated position vis a vis any view of mine having credibility in the current religious intellectual environment.

For the above reasons I am renewing seriously my life-long interest in the the discipline of history. To my way of thinking, even speaking as a Christian of an affirmatively orthodox creedal faith, history has considerable advantages over theology. Christian theology strikes me as largely being a very human attempt to make sense out of the purportedly historical events upon which our faith actually rests. All of it seems to be essentially a body of formulas and abstract human constructs designed to interpret - as best we may - the meaning of reported events surrounding one enigmatic historical figure whom we believe to have been the personal entry of God into our physical human universe. Most of the major doctrines and traditional practices of our faith derive from the attempt of a human institution called "the Church" to try to explain the apostolic testimony and documentary evidence concerning this man, Jesus of Nazareth, and the events surrounding his story and the nature of the message he proclaimed. Even the Trinity - the most central doctrine of our faith - was itself a human formulation, formally asserted only after centuries of debate, by a Church Council of Bishops at Nicea in the fourth century. The Creed that summarizes our basic beliefs is itself a formula articulated by this same Council.

As I see it the weakness of theology is that it is an essentially speculative and subjective kind of discipline, whereas history at least attempts - admittedly not always perfectly or successfully - to employ a more scientific approach, dealing squarely and objectively with documentary evidence, testimony and other kinds of factual source material such as might be available to empirical investigation. Of course witnesses do lie and documents can certainly be manipulated or unreliably recorded - but they can also be compared with other sources of testimony and other sources of evidence such that it is possible to arrive at some reasonably valid conclusions about what the truth might be. Truth derived from sources other than the mere say-so of a human institutional heirarchy intent on self-maintenance and power.

Not to be misunderstood - I am not debunking ecclesiastical authority wholesale. I recognize that Christianity without the Church is impossible, that the very sources of our belief would not themselves exist apart from the maintenance and dissemination thereof by the Church. Moreover, Christian faith and practice is not by its nature individualistic but is intelligible only within the context of a faith-community characterized by certain presumably shared values, such as grace and mercy, and distinct traditional practices, such as Baptism and the Eucharist. But this institution is not without limits, especially as since over the centuries the Church - "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic" has becomed divided and sub-divided into innumerable denominations, each propogating its own distinctive "angle" on the ancient message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It has become all but impossible then to adjudicate between all the competing truth-claims that are dogmatically advanced, and therefore once again, exploring the historical validity of such claims becomes far more helpful than mere theological assertions.

When I speak of history in connection with Jesus Christ and the Christian faith I do not necessarily associate myself with those New Testament historians - such as the theological liberals connected with the "Jesus Seminar" for instance - who speak of the so-called "Jesus of History" as over against the "Christ of Faith." This approach (which I want to make very clear that I emphatically disagree with and which I think is correctly regarded as heresy by orthodox Christians) suggests that the "Jesus of History" was in reality little more than a very spiritually enlightened human being and not "God incarnate" in any meaningful sense, and that the "Christ of Faith" was essentially a theological construct of the early Church (especially the Apostle Paul) that emerged only years after the death of Jesus. The problem with this whole line of thought is that the vision of Jesus produced, as was trenchantly observed by C.S. Lewis decades ago, is essentially un-historical. All of these "Jesuses" of history (and there are many such) - Jesus the Jewish reformer, Jesus the anti-Roman revolutionary, Jesus the Essene monk, Jesus the Gnostic etc. ad nuseam - are all themselves speculative constructs with no historical foundation.

The only substantive empirical evidence we actually have that this man Jesus ever actually existed - apart from the witness of the Church itself, and a few references in passing by the Jewish-Roman historian Jospehus - is the New Testament. Indeed, the Four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John constitute the only historical primary sources concerning Jesus known to exist and are therefore the only basis upon which any substantive claims can be made concerning him. It has long been my position that either these sources are reliable testimony, or they are not - we are left with no other foundation.

The difficulty many people seem to have with accepting the New Testament in general, and the Gospels in particular, as a reliable historical basis for Christian belief would seem to be largely the supernatural content (the resurrection of Jesus, miracles etc.) I find it interesting that in this new "post-modern" age which selectively abandons science (except where useful to its agendas) and has become so amenable to the superstitiously supernatural in so many other areas, there remains still a very "modernist" doubt about the Gospel accounts. Yet, absent the supernatural events, these narratives are certainly no less reliable than many other historical documents of classical antiquity that are generally accepted in the academic world as reasonably valid historical sources. Moreover, if God - whose existence cannot be empirically proved or disproved - is assumed arguendo to exist, why wouldn't the miracles affirmatively reported then be possible? As I see it, either the writers of these first century documents provided a truthful account of the events recorded or they are lying. Obviously I am pre-disposed to think they were being truthful. Perhaps it takes a "leap of faith" to accept that they are honest historical accounts - miracles and all - but it is not an unreasonable leap, whereas to speculatively assume other things about Jesus that have no substantive historical warrant at all is, to my way of thinking, thoroughly unreasonable.

I should point out that when I speak of the Gospels as "reliable" testimony, I am by no means advancing a fundamentalist claim of textual inerrancy. There are inconsistencies in the accounts provided, as there are in all ancient historical documentation. For instance, one has but to lay the four resurrection narratives in the Gospels side by side to see the variations in the details of the story that is told, yet it remains essentially the same story. Any lawyer, police investigator, or journalist, knows that the testimony of multiple witnesses to the same events is always going to have broad variation - indeed if the testimony offered is too tightly consistent one to another this usually suggests collusion which signals them that people are probably lying about something. To my way of thinking, the very inconsistency of detail that can be found in these accounts advances the claim that the writings were not collusive and likely a quite honest account.

My point in all of the above has simply been to suggest that Christianity is ultimately a faith that is not grounded in theological speculation or even ecclesiastical assertions, but in historical claims about historical events. Theological speculation or assertion of either the liberal or orthodox variety that fails to examine the historical sources as historical sources is, in my opinion at least, probably moving in the wrong direction in that it is moving in a direction away from reason.


Friday, February 19, 2010

Faith and Reason

This is an excerpt of my last reply to a group of theologically minded friends re an on-going conversation/dispute we have been engaged in. I post this here because I think it provides fair insight into just how I think about these kinds of questions:

OK here's the thing - I accept the notion that it is possible to believe a thing without proof, but I categorically reject the notion that it is possible to know a thing without proof.

There simply is no way to prove a proposition like the existence of God, or the physical resurrection of a dead man - these are supernatural faith assertions. The first words of our creed are "We believe" and not, "We know." What I call "dogmatism" is the insistence that people must accept as certain particular propositions that cannot be proved with evidence that any reasonable man can accept.

I left evangelicalism and joined the Episcopal Church (and resigned the professional ministry as a consequence of this decision) precisely because I no longer had any stomach for the sort of myopic and uncritical dogmatism that seems to characterize most popular American evangelical thinking. Yet at the same time I still wanted to remain a believing and practicing Christian of robust orthodox faith. However, I did not want to trade one form of fundamentalism for another. I did not want to substitute the provincialist biblical fundamentalism of the conservative-evangelicals that I had outgrown, for the more sophisticated "ecclesiological fundamentalism" increasinlgy prevalent in certain liturgical circles these days. If I had wanted to do that I would have - to use a phrase Frank Valdez likes - "swum the Tiber" and become a Roman Catholic.

I am attracted to the eucharistic and incarnational theology of Anglo-Catholicism and consider it far more spiritually mature and intellectually tenable than the culturally accommodationist folk-theology of the evangelicals - which is why I am an Anglican. But I refuse to absolutize any of it - I see this as a form of intellectual suicide that I am unwilling to commit. More importantly, like my friend Bruce Wright, I don't want to make the spiritual and moral mistake of closing myself off to the belief that God can and does work outside these presuppositional constructs of "truth" that human beings have erected.

One final thought - It is interesting to me that all you guys seem really into the whole "modernity vs. post-modernity" controversy that seems to have taken the theological world by storm these days. Participants in this controversy seem to equate "modernity" with entirely negative historical/cultural developments like market-capitalism and the nation-state and are therefore dismissive of it for these reasons (and the modern Market and State do seem to be good things for Christians to be somewhat dismissive about - I don't much like 'em either! lol!) however, when I think of "modernity" I am inclined only to connect it with the development of a way of thinking - specifically what Thomas Paine, writing at the end of the 18th century, called "The Age of Reason." Frankly I have a lot of respect for "Reason" as over against mere authority.

Personally I never gave much thought to the whole "modern vs. post-modern" thing until some of you guys started inundating me with it. Until very recently I just accepted the idea that faith and reason could be reconciled based on the fact that they asked and answered different questions. Faith addresses itself to questions that reason cannot answer and therefore does not ask. For me it's always been that simple - I have never felt compelled to create a whole new school of thought about a very old question!


Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Gospel? A denunciation of Patriotism - among other things

"And this Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come."

- The Gospel According to Matthew 24: 14

I have been reflecting a good deal on this lately and so today's entry is going to dwell on this issue:

I think that one of the major issues I have with American conservative-evangelical Christianity, and by extension to this, why I see no problem with reconciling my own very progressive, and sometimes even "radical" politics with a very orthodox and traditional affirmation of Christian truth, is because I am truly convinced that the evangelical movement in America has completely reified the meaning of "the Gospel" to mean something it was never historically understood to mean before relatively modern times. Moreover, in even more recent times, the American political movement generically referred to as "the Religious Right," seems to have so co-opted the perception of an overwhelming majority of evangelicals, that it has become almost impossible to distinguish this type of Christianity from values associated with the American political conservatism. In particular the notion that patriotic nationalism and Christianity have anything remotely to do with one another.

It is helpful to point out that N.T. Wright, Anglican Bishop of Durham (England) and one of the worlds leading biblical scholars - and probably the worlds top academic expert on the literature associated with the Apostle Paul - points out that Paul's use of the word "Gospel" (i.e. "Good News") esp. in his letter to the Romans, has been completely mis-understood and mis-applied by modern evangelicals. Bishop Wright points out that Paul borrows his use of the term in his letters to the churches directly from the widely recognized Roman proclamation of the time "Caesar is Lord" - this was the "Gospel" of the Roman State. What Paul suggests is that the good news or "Gospel" of the Church of Jesus Christ is the proclamation "Jesus is Lord." This new gospel presented a radical challenge to Roman state authority. It was this suggestion that the "Christos" (the "anointed" King) was elevated above Caesar by the early Christian communities that occasioned the several persecutions suffered by the Christians at the hands of the Roman government.

In short, the "Good News" was not an individualistic Gospel of personal salvation - it was the Gospel of the "Kingdom of God." Throughout the Four canonical Gospels, the central message of all Jesus' teaching and conversation seems to be preoccupied largely with this subject of the "Kingdom," relatively little is said regarding the salvation of individuals, and when the matter is addressed at all, it is directly in connection with the Kingdom, is understood as entirely a divine supernatural work of the Spirit, and not related at all to an instantaneous personal decision or "prayer of faith". Nowhere is the personal decision act of "accepting Christ as personal savior" even explicitly taught in the New Testament. Even the phrase "you must be born again" (in John's Gospel) is in the original Greek text in fact rendered more accurately as, "you must be born from above" and is directly linked with the practice of ceremonial baptism ("born of water and the spirit"). Calls to "Repent" as recorded in the Luke-Acts chronicle of the early Church are always associated with baptisms.

The early Christians understood "the ecclesia" - the Church - as the in-breaking of the Kingdom into the present age of the world, and that the age would end with the second advent when the King would return to personally inaugurate the Kingdom. It was precisely this claim to Kingship for Jesus on the part of the followers of "the Christ" that persuaded the Roman governor to grant the Jewish San Hedrin Council's petition to execute him - even though the Jewish "beef" was in fact blasephemy (not a capital offense under Roman law). The Roman legal justification for crucifying Jesus of Nazareth was high treason, which is why the sign Pilate had placed on the cross of the condemned was "King of the Jews". More than one early church father of the 2nd and 3rd centuries made it quite clear in his writings that their existed "no concord between Christ and Caesar." Polycarp was executed for refusing "to swear by the genius of Caesar" - he was but one of thousands of martyrs who would suffer death for no other crime than the simple act of rejecting the Lordship of Caesars Kingdom for that of the Christ.

What I am arguing is that modern evangelical Christianity, especially as widely understood and practiced by contemporary evangelical Protestants of several denominations (or so-called "non-denominational" churches) has transformed the Gospel message into a primarily private and individualistic matter of personal salvation and a view of "the Kingdom" as an exclusively future eschatalogical event with little or no reference to the universal Church. When I speak of "the Church" I am not really speaking of an institutional heirarchy per se - though clearly, it has institutional expression and as such is a visible phenomenon - but of the Eucharistic Community. The community that celebrates the "body and blood" of the coming King and is the visible embassy of the Kingdom in the world (and in this regard I do not advance the claim of any particular denominational entity as constituting the Church merely in itself - in the Anglican tradition we practice open communion, which means the sacrament is available to all baptized Christians). Secular political institutions such as national governments - with their use of war, force and violence as basic instruments of policy - are understood by many theologians and biblical scholars, such as Bishop Wright referenced above, as a manifestation of the Satanically dominated kosmos ("the world") of this present age. As such our loyalty and allegiance to the divine global institution of the Church - and by extension the coming Kingdom of God - must supercede any loyalty and allegiance to a national entity. Indeed with this understanding of the Gospel in view, nationalism becomes in fact, a form of idolatry. This is why personally I even object to national emblems on parish altars, and will refuse to stand for the flag if it is carried in processional during a church service on so-called "national days." There is no compromise possible in my view - we are either Americans first, or we are Christians first - we cannot be both! "There is no concord between Christ and Caesar."

The modern American gospel seems to be "the Market is Lord" and this culture of consumerism is rather obviously in direct defiance of everything the Gospel of the Kingdom that our Lord Jesus taught stands for. A Kingdom in which "it would be harder for a rich man to enter...than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle", a Kingdom in which "the life of a man would not consist in the abundance of his possessions" etc. The contemporary evangelical Gospel of being "saved" or "born again" understood as an entirely personalistic and individual "crisis experience" involving a "decision" unwittingly plays conveniently into this Market-driven modern cultural context. Christianity becomes a private matter distinct from the sector of public or community life and is thereby open to being transformed into a market commodity. Churches become businesses where a product called "religion" is sold rather like the sacrificial doves in the Temple marketplace whose tables our Lord Jesus overturned in his day.

All the above said, I do not disparage the personal dimension of salvation, nor do I consider it unimportant. Individual persons are "saved," they do experience "the new birth" etc. Scripture clearly affirms this. But they do so only in the context of the sacramental Christ-community called the Church, and they do so not as a result of a personal decision of "accepting Jesus" (after the manner of a Billy Graham crusade) but entirely as a supernatural work of God's grace - "lest any man should boast" (Paul). Personal salvation and redemption is but an underlying component of the Gospel, which is as Paul plainly stated it, and the early Church clearly understood it, "Jesus is Lord."

I also do not disparage the requirement - as plainly affirmed by Paul in Romans 13 (and reiterated by Peter in 1 Peter 2) - "to submit to the governing authorities." However this admonition too is broadly mis-understood by contemporary Christians to mean something it does not. Christians are admonished to "live at peace with all men" and it is always been part of the Christian tradition to respect the rule of law. But only so long as the rule of law of a given Nation-State is not in violation of the law of God. Indeed one advantage the United States has - historically at least - enjoyed above many other nations, is that in our civic republican tradition the law is elevated above "the State," and even the State is regarded as accountable to it. This idea is actually directly inherited from the English tradition (and has a thoroughly Christian basis and heritage) that even the King himself is subject to the rule of law (its worth pointing out that in medieval England most written law-codes were largely Church canon law). That the only sovereignty that is absolute is the sovereignty of God - and by extension the sovereignty of the law. On this very basis the English Parliament actually ordered the execution of Charles I in 1649.

However, what happens when even the State forgets the law and acts lawlessly? Or - what happens when the very law propounded by the State calls upon Christians to act against their Spirit-directed conscience (such as for instance on the matter of participation - or endorsement - of imperialistic wars, or assent to State policies that sanction slavery, race prejudice or the forceful dispossession of indiginous peoples, or allow the economic violence of social injustice to the poor for the sake of pretecting the private profit of corporations as over against the public interest and the public welfare) well in Acts 5, we are told that "we ought to obey God rather than men." Clearly, non-violent Civil Disobedience to the State is firmly recognized in the New Testament, in fact both Gandhi (who it must be said did not profess to be a Christian) and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (a Baptist Minister) openly claimed they had derived their use of this political and revolutionary tactic directly from the Christian tradition.

I have come to recognize that the proclamation "Jesus is Lord" is not merely a privatistic spiritual claim applicable to the personal lives of individual Christians, it is indeed a radical political claim that calls for the prophetic confrontation of all violence and injustice (legal, social or economic) even if on perpetrated on the part of the secular State. The only patriotism applicable to Christians is the patriotism of the Kingdom of God, any other is a compromise of the Gospel.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

State of the Union

This evening Barack Obama, the President of the United States, will read his first "State of the Union" address to Congress (and to the American people). Hopefully he will level with us and admit -as Gerald Ford did back in the mid-70's - that "the state of the union is not good" (I'm actually old enough to clearly recall hearing this speech) but likely since our new President has proven himself a consummate master at the art of ecquivocation we will be told something other than the unvarnished truth. Some of the measures that he is expected to propose as a solution to our current economic dilemmas resemble those taken by Herbert Hoover after the Great Crash of 1929, and as my entry below implies, it is my expectation they will have similar results. A band-aid is inappropriate when major surgery is required, but there are few politicians in either major party who have any stomach for the kind of surgery necessary, indeed they would regard even the mere proposal thereof as politically inexpedient to their careers.

I voted for Obama - mostly as a vote against the conservatives (whom I really strongly oppose) rather than as a vote for the candidate himself - but like many I had indulged high hopes that an African-American running on a platform of "change" would actually bring at least some component of genuine progressive thinking to the office. I have been disappointed so far - he has proven himself as merely a progressive liberal by rhetoric, but a pragmatic Centrist by policy, and fundamentally conducts himself no differently than any other Washington politician. The Right has made a sensational rhetorical game out of attacking Obama as a "socialist" and a man who keeps company with "radicals" etc. and has won quite a few converts among a disaffected and not very well informed population - but the truth is there is little substantive difference between either of the major parties in terms of the actual conduct of policy. Both Democrats and Republicans remain equally committed to upholding the existing status quo - in spite of the fact that the evidence - to those who really care to take a good hard look - is that the present way of doing the peoples business in the Republic is failing, and that genuinely progressive alternatives are needed. The people voted for "change" because that is what, deep down, the people really want and need - we haven't seen any!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Blog format has changed

As of todays date I am altering the format of excaliburs word - this site will no longer be a public forum on public policy & faith, but has been converted to a personal electronic journal which will include commentary on current affairs and issues. However, this journal will continue to be available for public comment.

2009 has been a stressful year - last February, my desperate financial circumstances in the wake of an extended layoff from my last job made it necessary to re-locate from Tampa and move in with my recently widowed aunt and two twentysomething cousins here in Pinellas Park. My aunts house is comfortable, but family circumstances here make it a three-ring circus most of the time, and the adjustment has been difficult for one like me who is accustomed to the serenity of living alone. It now appears that I am facing a possible layoff from my current job as a civilian staff member with the Police Dept. (I work in an office that handles fund-raising for Police-related public charities such as the Police Athletic League). I started in this position last March and have almost a year of service, but our productivity numbers in our office have dipped precipitously due to the impact of the economic recession on charitable donations.

With reference to the recession - in the opinion of economists we are currently experiencing a "recovery" in terms of most of the major indicators upon which these things are measured, although it has not impacted unemployment which remains at record lows not matched since the 70's - and not exceeded since the Great Depression of the 30's. However many of the economists have suggested that this is really a short-lived psuedo-recovery that will be followed up by a second recession likely more devastating than the one from which we are now recovering.

Personally, I am inclined to agree with this Cassandra prognosis, as I'm aware the long-term cause of the crisis itself was the multi-dimensional failure of the finance-capital system of Wall Street, and is a demonstration to me that the American-style de-regulated brand of corporation capitalism is a non-viable system given to repeated cycles of instability. Moreover, economies today are no longer "national" economies, but we now live in an interdependent global economy in which trans-national actors (such as transnational corporations) have a more significant impact on economic events than do the policies of individual nation-states. What the present occupant of the White House does, or does not do, has only a marginal impact on an interconnected global system. The USA has only a minimal production basis for its economy today and is dependent on off-shore production from industrial contractors in other nations (especially China), what was once the center of US economic strength has now been sacrificed on the altar of corporate greed. We are now but a consumer market for mostly foreign produced goods - and as the economic system proceeds to unravel, even our viability in this regard will rapidly disintegrate. In short, I'm not sanguine about our future.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Faith vs. Dogmatism: a personal reflection

"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."

- Hebrews 11: 1 (NRSV)

"I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians, they are so unlike your Christ."

- M. K. Gandhi

Recently I was put to the unpleasant expedient of having to remove two individuals from my Facebook internet social networking account. Why was this necessary? Because I am a man who has come to have a limited tolerance for the dogmatic, especially when it is taken to the point of personal disparagement in a public venue. The two in question were people with whom I had become acquainted on an evangelical Christian site concerning "apologetics" (the rational defense of faith) that I had taken an interest in, and I did not really know them personally. It had however become quickly apparent to me that these two had little interest in a lively exchange of views, but only in persuading me of the merits of their own position - and in rather un-Christ like fashion, had no qualms about using labels such as "heretic" or "apostate" in describing other Christian groups with whom they disagreed on rather disputable questions of doctrine. This experience caused me to reflect at length on a matter that has occupied my inner life for some time now - the distinction between faith and dogmatism. I heartily affirm the former, but have grown increasingly impatient with the latter as I have encountered it over the years - from others - or within my own spirit.

As I see it the basic difference is that dogmatists traffic in certainty, whereas people of authentic faith deal in hope. As the writer of the letter to the Hebrews expresses it, " is the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen." What this passage of scripture would seem to suggest to me is that religious faith is non-rational. Notice that I did not say "irrational" - there are very good and compelling reasons for Christian faith that commend themselves to those of us who have come to accept its claims, but none of these reasons offer conclusive proof of any sort that justifies a claim to certitude or spiritual hubris. Faith addresses itself entirely to realities that are outside the range of the empirically verifiable. What any religious tradition affirms about such things as "God," "eternal life," or "revelation" (as disclosed within a particular set of scriptures, or mediated through the ritual and practices of a community within that tradition) are amenable neither to any proof, or dis-proof, that is external to that faith-community. The only "evidence" that can prove or justify the claims of any faith - Christian or otherwise - is the personal mystical experience of that faith in those who believe in it. The best that any historical evidence could do (such as the apostolic testimony of the Four Gospels for instance) is offer compelling data that our faith might be true - and therefore reasonable. But beyond this it cannot go. To use the language of both the lawcourt and laboratory, the evidence is "inconclusive." Consequently, it would seem to me that in faithful people the recognition of this reality would engender a spirit of charity and humility. As a Christian I cannot claim to know that any of what I believe is the "truth" in any absolute sense, I can but rest in hope and expectation.

Don't get me wrong, I am a man who is in love with God, passionate about his Christianity, and have some very definite personal convictions about both the doctrines I believe and the values I try to practice. I am a member of the Episcopal Church - a denomination in the Anglican tradition - and theologically my views are largely "conservative" ones with respect to the central affirmations of this branch of the Church of Jesus Christ. When I say the Nicene Creed during the liturgical service of my parish on Sunday morning, I heartily endorse without reservation the truth and historic reality of the entire corpus of this ancient affirmation of the Christian Gospel. As I see it, authentic faith must have form and content - and doctrine provides the content, and tradition provides the form. My faith has provided for me, in the words of the song "Forever Young" that 60's era folk-singer Joan Baez sang so beautifully "...a strong foundation when the winds and changes shift."

On the other hand it is not that I would disparage reason either. Quite the contrary, where matters of a "this-worldly" nature are concerned I have long been the consummate rationalist. I am very much the sort to insist on facts, evidence, and empirical data with regard to any issue that admits itself to analysis on this basis. But I have come to see that rational methods of inquiry have met their boundary when it comes to having much to say in the area of faith. Not that I think faith and reason are incompatible (for that is yet another kind of dogmatism indulged in by the "religion" of atheism) but simply that they address themselves to very different kinds of questions. As I see it faith transcends reason, but it does not contradict it.

No one believes anything without some degree of inward personal assurance that that what s/he believes is "right." If I weren't personally convinced that Christianity were "true" or "right" in its claims, well obviously I would believe in something else. This only makes sense, doesn't it? What does not make much sense is for me to fail to recognize that other people are making exactly the same assumption regarding the truths that they believe that may be very different from mine. What also does not make much sense - especially given the values of love and charity that our faith purportedly teaches us to practice - is to behave in a patronizingly superior manner toward those of a different religion (or no religion) or even of a different denomination within the same religion. Or even worse yet - to indulge the sort of outright hate that is responsible for a good many of the profound tragedies of our human history. We could be wrong, and those we patronize could well end up being right - we just don't know. As Christians we have our faith and the "witness of the Spirit" to guide us, but not the sort of concrete absolutely verifiable evidence of "certainty" that would allow us to insist on assent to our "truths" on the part of anyone else. Why is it, I wonder, so many Christians - be they fundamentalist or evangelical Protestants or very orthodox Roman or Anglo-Catholics, indeed even those who call themselves theological "liberals" - do not seem to have the humility to recognize this?

I am certainly not innocent of the sin of spiritual pride, particularly in the years of my teens and early adulthood I too indulged the arrogance of certainty of which I am now so critical. It damaged my relationships and in fact made shipwreck of my faithful witness to the Gospel. It took a long road of hard knocks and painful experiences for me to really wake up and see what the teaching of Jesus was really all about, and I'm still learning it every day. But it is life that teaches me these lessons much more than doctrine. The older I get (and I will turn 46 as of the week of this writing) the more I recognize that our witness is not in what we say, but largely in what we do. It is not our ortho-doxy that others notice and are either impressed or repelled by - but our ortho-praxy, or the lack of it.

Those for whom Jesus had the harshest rebuke were the rigid and legalistic dogmatists of his own culture and faith-community - the Pharisees. The sort that would order the stoning to death of an adulterous woman on the street, but not even bother to ask where was the male accomplice of the adulteries for which she stands accused and condemned? "You who is without sin, be the first to cast a stone at her" is what the Gospel writer records Jesus as asking the mob - and it is as fair a question today as it was then to any who are self-satisified in their own sense of personal "holiness." Jesus impacted those who followed him much more by his works of love, mercy and compassion, than by anything he ever said or taught. It was his work of supreme self-sacrifice on the cross in suffering and giving up his life that stands as the central story of our faith and that our creeds and rituals commemorate - not some particular teaching that he propounded.

St. Francis of Assisi is supposed to have said, "We should always preach the Gospel, and sometimes we should use words." I hope to do better at following this example, and have done with dogmatism.