27 August 2005
That said, I sincerely hope that non-Christians don't look at that list of beliefs a couple of posts back and see it as a big ol' wall they'd need to scale before they'd be welcome to try experiencing a Christian community. The sorts of Christian communities I hang out in will never, ever ask you if you affirm those beliefs. Your faith is between you and God. "Orthodoxy" never needs to be an issue for you unless you want it to be.
However, if you do consider yourself a Christian, but question (as well you might) the value of even trying to hold some of those beliefs in your head, this series of posts is intended to invite you and me to consider carefully that very good question.
Mike's blog: "I don't think we need to claim that we know or understand the nature of the resurrection, or of the Holy Spirit, or the sense in which Jesus' mother is called the Virgin Mary."
Elizabeth: What does it mean to "affirm a belief" in the absence of knowledge or understanding? For instance, what would it mean to say that I believe Jesus was born of a virgin, but I don't know how that could be possible and in fact don't believe it is possible in any conventional sense? Wouldn't I be saying that I in some sense "know" Jesus was born of a virgin, while simultaneously admitting there is no way for me to "know" any such thing? By this way of thinking, what would then prevent me from affirming a belief in just any old thing: the noodly spaghetti lord, the blue dogs of the moon, the existence of invisible pink unicorns?
This is really a smashingly good question, and it gets down to a deeper question: "What is belief?" (Before I tackle that one, though, I should probably make a disclaimer that I should have made before: for me personally, belief takes a back seat in importance to two other things: faith and practice. By "faith" I mean "faith in someone" as opposed to "faith that something is true." The emphasis on practice is a very Anglican thing. But anyway, at the moment we're discussing belief, as in "belief that a proposition is in some sense true"....)
So, regarding the nature of belief, I have to admit that I'm strongly convinced that belief has much more to do with choice than is has to do with knowledge. Therefore (and I think this is true empirically), nothing is to prevent anyone from affirming a belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the ever-popular Invisible Pink Unicorns--if they decide to believe in those things. I may tell myself that I have "become convinced" of some belief, that I have come to an understanding of it and it fits within my little monkey brain and my monkey brain has rationally judged it true in the same way that scientists construct hypotheses that become theories based on evidence. Many people believe (there's that word again) that this is the process they go through when they come to a belief in the resurrection, or the Trinity, or the divine/human dual nature of Jesus, or karma, or reincarnation, or the divine dictation of the Quran, or whatever. My personal opinion, however, is that they are full of shit. They chose to believe in those things, pure and simple. Evidence, understanding, and something like "knowledge" may play a role, but anybody who claims that something like the doctrine of the Trinity is some "knowledge" that he holds neatly in his head is fooling himself. If you believe in the Trinity, I promise you that it's not because you "understand" it. If you believe that Jesus was fully human and also fully divine, you're embracing a paradox--kind of like believing that it's somehow true to say that Jesus was born of a Virgin while also admitting that you can't understand how in any conventional sense this could be so.
Despite all that, one can choose to believe these things--or to believe in karma, reincarnation, Flying Spaghetti Monster, James Van Praagh, all of the above, whatever. There's a phrase that the modern world might apply to choosing to claim "belief" in something while admitting a lack of understanding of it: "intellectual dishonesty". I admit there's some truth in that charge. At the very least, there are some mental gymnastics involved in "believing" like this. But I contend that it's at least less dishonest to choose belief and admit lack of knowledge than it is to choose belief and claim knowledge you ain't got. But we're left once again with the question: why choose belief? Why orthodoxy? Why not skip the mental gymnastics and go for maximum intellectual honesty--which is probably a thoroughgoing skepticism? Tune in next time....
26 August 2005
It's this point of view that I wanted to consider a little bit. I have sympathy for it, no doubt. But I think it creates some problems that are worth considering.
First of all, I'll take a stab at loosely defining "Christian orthodoxy". That's a bold thing to attempt to do, no? And make no mistake, many Christians would differ vociferously with the following definition. But here, for the record, is what Mike Croghan thinks defines an orthodox Christian.
An orthodox Christian believes that:
- The Trinity is a valid model for understanding the nature of God.
- God the Father or Creator was and is intimately involved in the creation of the universe and everything in it, seen and unseen.
- Jesus of Nazareth was and is God made manifest on earth, God's Son in a unique way, in complete union with the father.
- He was the the earthly son of the Virgin Mary and born through the power of the Holy Spirit. (I don't think we need to believe that we know exactly how this went down.)
- He really lived, was really killed, and in some sense really was resurrected and is alive now.
- The "Kingdom of God" that he inaugurated while he walked the earth will come to full fruition of earth and will have no end. When this happens, all of us, alive or dead, will experience something like Jesus' resurrection--whatever the nature of that might have been!
- The Holy Spirit is the real presence of God within everyone from the ancient prophets to the individual believer today.
- The Church in its broadest and best sense is a divine, holy, inclusive, and welcoming institution. The two main sacraments of baptism and communion are also divine in origin.
- The writings of the Bible were inspired by the Holy Spirit, meaning that the Spirit was intimately involved in their composition, and they are all profitable for teaching, etc. I don't think we have to believe that the Bible is inerrant or infallible, nor that what the Spirit wants to teach us in a passage is necessarily the literal, uncritical meaning of that passage.
I think that's about it. If you can affirm each of those points in some way, shape, or form, then I think anyone who claims you're not an orthodox Christian is being extremely unGenerous. I also think there's a lot of room for mystery within every one of those points. I don't think we need to claim that we know or understand the nature of the resurrection, or of the Holy Spirit, or the sense in which Jesus' mother is called the Virgin Mary. We don't need to claim that we know what the Spirit is saying through a difficult passage of Scripture. It is enough, I claim, to affirm that these words point to realities that we believe are indeed Real, and authentic, and fully part of our personal faith, and that these are realities we want to get to know better. That, I claim, is enough for orthodoxy.
But why bother? Why affirm these things--why make an effort to be orthodox? Why not just believe whatever comes easy to us and whatever makes perfect sense to us right now? I'll try to tackle that question in the next post in this series.
But hey, how are kids going to make informed choices if we don't give them all the information? And Flying Spaghetti Monster is relevant to other subjects too. (Math--who created all those numbers? English--whose meatballs rumbled with the first syllables of language? Home Ec--well, it's obvious.) So He should be part of the curriculum in every subject. Then, and only then, will students have all the facts. And every moment of their public school education will be an opportunity to by Touched by His Noodly Appendage. I just hope that the same thing is happening in other countries, or we may find ourselves in a spot of trouble a few years from now....
25 August 2005
20 August 2005
“The single thing that I am most excited and passionate about right now is seeking and trying out answers to the following question: How can we make the faith of Jesus Christ relevant to emerging generations, who are often postmodern in outlook and post-Christian in upbringing? (This population includes many of my close friends, and included me as recently as three years ago.) I think exciting answers to this question are being explored by the Missional Church and Emerging Church movements, as well as the rich traditions of Anglicanism and other forms of Christianity. Many days, after reading a book or having a stimulating conversation or prayer session on these topics, I feel like my heart is ready to burst with a sense of mission and of work God has given me to do.”
To my non-Christian friends who read this blog: do not fear. I come in peace. I have no intention of trying to sell Christianity to you whenever we connect. On the other hand, I do know that for many of you being active in a church seems to make about as much sense as joining the circus. Sure, some folks may find it rewarding, but what could it possibly have to do with me?? What I’m interested in is coming up with better answers to that question, for those who might be asking it with some openness to the idea that the answer may not be the obvious “nothing”. These days, it’s easy to conclude that the church is all about closed-mindedness, bigotry, and exclusion on the one hand, empty irrelevance and dry rehashing of tradition on the other hand, and an unhealthy dose of divisiveness, defensiveness, and self-absorption all around. None of that is what Jesus or the first disciples had in mind. There are other alternatives. More than anything, I want to play some part in making those alternatives real and visible.
I’ll make one further admission: I really think this is what I’m supposed to do with the rest of my life. Less doctoring computers so they connect the American consumer with his destined advert, more doctoring churches so they connect the American seeker with her fellow humans, with the world, and with God. (Though I’ll probably be doing both, for who knows how long, to pay the bills.)
I’m not necessarily talking about ordained ministry, though I haven’t ruled it out. Nor have I ruled out teaching hang gliding to Asian tourists in the more crocodile-infested parts of Australia, if that’s what God wants me to do. (Please note: If You find that image amusing, as I rather suspect You do, You’d better be prepared to reveal some heretofore completely unsuspected spiritual and natural gifts, Buster.) In any case, one way or another, I want ministry to be a much bigger part of what I devote my time and talent to, so I pray that if that’s God’s will too, God will point the way to make it so. Amen.
14 August 2005
It's in the form of a Q&A, and I envision the whole brochure to be sort of an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) list, like you find all over the web. Also, if you happen to have read Brian McLaren's book The Story We Find Ourselves In, you'll note that it blatantly owes a major, almost plagiaristic debt to that book. (Though I haven't opened that book in a couple of months and therefore hope I haven't literally plagiarized it.) Anyway, if it seems to make sense, I'll follow up with the other three sections, though they become increasingly about my specific church, so they may not be of much interest. So without further ado, my "Membership" Q&A:
Why are we here?
Why are we here in this church? Or why are we here on this earth? Never mind; we’ll take a crack at answering the first question, and maybe it’ll shed light on the second one.
We’re here in this church because we’ve heard a story—a story so compelling that we can’t resist joining our own life stories to this larger story: God’s story. We’re here in this particular place because we’ve personally connected with one tradition of tellers and doers of this story known as “Anglicans” (which means “from England”), who in this country are known as “Episcopalians” (which means “Bishop people”), and we’ve especially connected with the folks here at this church. More on all of that later.
So how does this story go?
Well, like we said, it’s the story of God, so it starts out with God’s Creation of everything we see and experience—the universe, the earth, plants and animals, and each one of us human beings. (At this point, the story of God becomes the story of God and human beings.) This creation is ongoing, and God created you and me just as surely as God created the first microscopic amoeba.
That sounds nice. Then what happened?
As in any good story, there has to be a Crisis. This one’s no exception. Human beings made bad choices: they didn’t honor and care for God, the natural world, and their fellow humans the way God intended them to. The sad truth is that we all make the same kinds of choices every day. You’ll hear these bad choices referred to as “sin.” These bad choices can make (and have made) the world a sometimes difficult, sometimes horrible place to live.
I’ve noticed that we’ve got some problems. What did God do next?
One striking way in which God chose to deal with this problem was to Call a particular family from among all the peoples of the earth, and commission them with a special responsibility: to do their best to tell this story the way God originally intended it, to bless (that is, benefit) all the other families of the world, and to guide them toward healthy relationships with God, nature, and each other. This family was the descendents of a couple named Abraham and Sarah, and they became known as the Israelites, the Hebrews, or the Jews. Both Judaism and Christianity grew out of the culture that this family developed into.
How did that work out?
Humans being humans, results were mixed. On the up side, Hebrew culture produced many shining stars in the form of Prophets, Priests, Poets, and Philosophers (as well as regular folks) who kept up a lively Conversation with God, and who lived out their calling to tell God’s story and to guide others toward good relationships with God and creation. On the down side, the Israelites kept right on making bad choices, just like everybody else, so in the grand scheme of things, not much progress was made toward resolving the crisis.
Hmm. Is there any hope, then?
Human beings always hope, and after hundreds of years of persecution due to their own bad choices and those of others, the Hebrew people had developed lots of specific expectations regarding God’s next move to resolve this crisis. Most of them revolved around a figure known as the “Messiah” in Hebrew or the “Christ” in Greek. (Both words mean “made holy using oil,” since the Israelites used to set people apart for a holy purpose by a ceremony in which oil was dabbed on their heads.) Many people expected the Messiah to be a great military leader who would free them from their current oppressors, the Roman Empire.
What actually happened was something that no-one expected. A boy was born to a poor family of carpenters who lived in a place called Galilee, out in the hinterlands of the Jewish territory. When this boy, named Jesus, grew up, he began preaching that something called the “Kingdom of God” had arrived, so people had better kiss those bad choices goodbye and get right with God and the world.
He spent three years walking around the Jewish lands, hanging out with outcasts, caring for and healing people, and telling stories about this Kingdom of God and what it was like. Although he was completely peaceful, people began to catch on that this guy might be the “Messiah” they’d been waiting for, and some folks were afraid he’d upset the political applecart. He was already upsetting the religious establishment by welcoming outcasts and telling people that love for God and people, not strict religious observance, was the most important thing.
So for those reasons, the religious and political powers of the time put Jesus to death by hanging him on two crossed beams of wood (a “cross”) until he died. (This was a common Roman method of execution.)
Three days later, Jesus came back. This is known as the “resurrection.” He showed up again and again and showed his followers, who had been grieving and frightened for their own lives, that God was more powerful than the oppressive powers, and he was living proof. He told them that he had a job for them to do: to bring the good news about Jesus and the Kingdom he ushered in to the entire world, and invite them into the sort of relationship with God, nature, and other people that God had in mind from the beginning. He also promised them that he would always be with them, and they called their experience of the empowering presence of God within them the “Spirit” or “Breath” of God.
Those first followers of Jesus were pretty surprised too. But looking back at Jesus’ life, death, and especially his resurrection, they couldn’t escape the conclusion that in seeing Jesus, they had seen God in a way that had never been possible before on this earth. Since Jesus always called God by the name “Father”, they spoke of Jesus as the “Son” of God. By trying to follow in the footsteps of this Jesus, people could finally become free of their bad choices, and enter into a new relationship with God and people that Jesus had referred to as the Kingdom of God. Jesus also called this relationship “eternal life”, because it meant living life to the fullest, the way it was meant to be lived, with such confidence in God that there was no need to fear that it would ever end.
So they got busy with the mission Jesus had given them, and started telling people this good news (another word for “good news” is “gospel”). They came to be called the Church. This building is “a church”, but The Church is the community of all the people who follow Jesus, past and present. The Church carries on Jesus mission of welcoming everyone (including outcasts), caring for and healing people, and telling this story and the good news about the Kingdom of God and eternal life.
OK, but is that the whole story? Because I think we’ve still got a crisis here.
That’s not quite the whole story. Although the Kingdom Jesus talked about had arrived when Jesus walked the earth, it still hasn’t fully arrived. But Jesus spoke of a Kingdom that was both “now” and “not yet”, but which is coming, fully and completely. We have confidence that God is bringing this whole story to final Consummation, that the Kingdom will be fully present on earth, and that God will wipe away every tear and everyone will experience the sort of life that Jesus called “eternal”. We want to play some small part in helping to bring that about, which is why we’re here in this church, and maybe also why we’re here on this earth.
Wow. So where did all this come from?
The story you just read is the story told by a book called the Bible, also known as Scripture, which is actually a collection of books written over a period of a millennium or two by the people experiencing the story. Christians believe that these writings were “inspired” by God, which means that God’s Spirit was intimately involved in their composition. In our Anglican heritage, we interpret Scripture using two other gifts from God: Tradition, or the collective wisdom of the Church, in its rich and varied forms, over the last 2000 years; and Reason, or the exercise of our own God-given minds and hearts. These three, Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, are sometimes referred to as the “three-legged stool” on which the Anglican tradition sits.
OK, so this was supposed to be about membership. I’m intrigued, but do I need to buy every word of that before I can join in?
Nope, not at all. Now you know the basics of our story. If you’re intrigued, or even curious, we’d love to have you. Join us as we go about trying to live a good relationship with God and our fellow human beings, and try us on for size. To further explore, please consider attending our regularly scheduled class on “Discovering Membership”. Following Jesus is an adventure; grab a safari hat, hop aboard, and journey with us for a while!
13 August 2005
In that order, though you may quibble with the ordering of Chocolate and Vanilla, or of Butterscotch and Tapioca. Once you get beyond that, you're in the realm of Bread Pudding or Pistachio or something.
I apologize for the extreme pointlessness of this post. I was eating pudding (Tapioca) and reflecting, and felt the need to share. :-)
Someone must have tried making Coffee pudding. Don't recall ever running across it, though.
Yes, I'm waiting for tech support.
Anyway, I still hope/plan to do a real blog entry this weekend.
Work sucks. :-P
07 August 2005
What's the difference between the Christian eschatological hope of the fulfilled, final coming of the Kingdom of God (on the one hand), and the secular modern myth of "progress" (on the other hand)?
There are some obvious differences, of course (only one of them involves Jesus, or even God, for example). But I'm interested in exploring the differences in method and manner of unfolding, in expectations, in the people involved, etc. My main interest is in differentiating the two so as to recognize when the one is devolving into the other. Which I think is a major potential pitfall when we moderns and postmoderns (equally inheritors of this modern myth) talk about the coming Kingdom and eschatology. When we yearn for the coming of the Kingdom, what exactly are we yearning for, how will we get there, and how does it differ from modern secular visions of a utopia of technology and tolerance? Is it exactly the same, except that everybody's Christian? (I doubt it.) Is it in fact nothing more or less than the vast majority of the population, as well as "society" and its power structures, once again being overtly Christian? (Doubt that too, or else the Kingdom would have been fully manifested in Western society for centuries after Constantine. And that--er--wasn't exactly the case.) Could the Kingdom that Jesus taught about be fully present in a society that's religiously pluralist?
OK, this is a big topic. Fr. Rick tells me that Brian McLaren is writing a book on the subject of this Kingdom; probably that will provide some fresh insights.
06 August 2005
(Of course, the stranger often has at least as much to fear from the unfamiliar church folk. I almost bought a book at the National Cathedral today called When Bad Christians Happen To Good People. Every single one of you knows what that book was talking about.)
But what can be even scarier than a stranger in church? How about a friend in your church who at length realizes that some of her cherished beliefs and expectations aren't shared by you, and that she isn't sure she can live with that? That can be really hard for both parties. Many of us want very much for church to be a place where our beliefs and expectations are completely safe and unchallenged. When a challenge is perceived within one's own church--perhaps even from the church's leadership--it can hurt very deeply. A person in this situation may be very deeply invested in defending his point of view, often employing the proverbial best defense. (You know, "a good offense.") Many religious folks are both very sensitive and very passionate, and these sorts of conflicts can become terribly painful, resulting in torn friendships, split congregations, and schism. Church can become, paradoxically, a hazardous place for the heart and soul.
What's the remedy for all this? Well, Jesus and his disciples taught that the person you don't know is not a stranger, but a neighbor. Your fellow Christian is not just a friend, but a brother or sister. Jesus taught that his disciples would be known by their love for one another, and he commanded us, above all else, to love one another (John 13:34-35). If we remember these things, and make them part of our way of life, we may do better. But we still may face two obstacles:
- There is always a temptation to say "I will love my brother in Christ, but as soon as he takes X position on subject Y, he is clearly no longer my brother in Christ." This tendency can be found even among the first disciples--see, for example, the first letter of John in the New Testament. There are undoubtedly times (such as, perhaps, the situation faced by the author of 1 John) where taking this stance is necessary. But I strongly believe that God wants us to love one another far more than God needs us to defend his truth against every error. God's truth is far less vulnerable to our human mistakes than we sometimes seem to think. Jesus said, "Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice." (Matthew 9:13) In my opinion, staunchly defending our beliefs (the ones that aren't central to the Gospel, anyway) is much more like the pious observance of ritual sacrifice than it is like the mercy that Jesus commanded of us.
- Of course, the other party may well see you as a stranger, even though you see her as a neighbor; or see you as a friend or acquaintance, even though you see him as a brother. In this case, conflict and hurt may happen despite your loving heart. This is one of the risks of discipleship, and the only remedy that I know of in this case is prayer and the fellowship of other sisters and brothers.
So, I suppose I was just reflecting on how churches are full of sensitive, passionate people with so much invested in their cherished beliefs and their desire that their church be a safe place for those beliefs. Under those circumstances, it's no wonder that they can be dangerous places for the heart, and especially for the hearts of leaders. I pray that we rank-and-file Christians will cultivate the love Jesus commanded of us, and put it ahead of our desire to defend our point of view from both strangers and friends. Amen.
01 August 2005
While driving back through northern Maryland, I happened to notice three crosses set up by the side of the road (not unlike the image, except that the middle one was bright white and the ones on either side were brown). I pointed them out to Tina (who, as I've mentioned before, isn't a Christian, and hence is, among many other things, an extremely good source for informed non-Christian reactions to things), and asked her why she thought they were there. She suggested that perhaps they were a roadside memorial to someone who had died nearby. I've seen such things, and for all I know that may well have been part of the motivation for their construction, but it was crystal clear to me that they were meant to symbolize and bring to mind the crosses of Calvary: Jesus in the middle, and a bandit on either side.
Now, here's where it gets speculative (for which I've already apologized). I started wondering what the primary motivation might have been for erecting those crosses in that place. They might well have been intended to call Christians to remembrance of Christ's sacrifice on the cross. But my imagination doubted that that was their primary purpose. My guess was that those crosses' primary reason for standing there by the side of the road was evangelization. My supposition was that someone had erected those crosses primarily so that passing non-Christians, seeing them, would be reminded of the familiar Biblical story of the crucifixion and think, "Oh, yeah. Jesus died for me," and be convicted to make a decision for Christ.
This whole (utterly fabricated) scenario bothered me somewhat, on several levels, but I bet you can guess the main thing that I thought was wrong with this picture, based on my conversation with Tina. If my made-up construct of the reasoning behind those crosses is close to correct, then it's based on an assumption that is largely invalid in today's American society, and is becoming more and more so each year: that any given Biblical story or principle is remotely familiar to the average non-Christian. If I'm right, those crosses were meant to communicate something to folks like Tina, but the message was not being received, because Tina wasn't familiar enough with the story pointed to by the symbols to have a clue what they were trying to convey. And she's a pretty darned informed non-Christian, if for no other reason than that I never shut up.
To the extent that my speculation was remotely on-target, and to the extent that this type of evangelism--proclamation that assumes familiarity with Biblical stories--is practiced exclusively or even primarily by many Christians, I was a bit unsettled by this. I found myself worrying that a lot of effort is going into trying to communicate the good news in a way that it will never be received, as if someone dropped a Russian-language newspaper on my doorstep every morning. It might be full of great reportage, but who cares? I'll ever know.
Anyway, this is the extent to which my imagination got the better to me on a long car ride when it had nothing better to occupy it. I don't have anything against erecting crosses by the roadside, for whatever reason, and I pray that the ministry and mission of the folks who built those particular ones are richly blessed. Amen.