Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The King or a Fox: Configuring the Mosaic of Scripture, Part 3

There is a basic outline that informs any configuration of scripture. That is the story of God’s creating the world and declaring it good, the recognition that that goodness has been despoiled rather than lived into, God’s call of Abraham and his descendants to be a blessing to the nations, the deliverance of the exodus and return from exile, the growing expectation of God’s restoration of all things, Jesus Christ as the embodiment and fulfillment of that expectation, and the Church as the community called to bear witness to and live into that expectation.

Beyond that basic outline, what might be some guidelines to help us configure scripture such that we are more likely to end up with a portrait of the King rather than a fox while recognizing the complex ways in which we all make interpretive choices and give some portions of scripture priority over others? How do we recognize the King in a configuration of scripture while still accounting for the reality that we do not always end in the same place and not all faithful portraits will look exactly the same? Can we identify some guidelines or criteria by which we evaluate more faithful biblical configurations from less faithful or even faithless interpretations? Not all configurations are faithful. Not all faithful configurations are equally faithful. But there might be a range of recognizably, more or less, faithful configurations (St. Augustine thought so. See Augustine's Generous Hermeneutic). The following criteria based on how the canon of scripture came to be accepted and how the early church read the Bible, are suggested to assist in configuring the mosaic of scripture.

Next: Criterion 1. Jesus Christ

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The King or a Fox: Configuring the Mosaic of Scripture, Part 2

Among other things, honoring the scriptures means we must attend to the kinds of texts they are rather than impose theories of what we think they should be if they are inspired and authoritative. Wooden theories of inerrancy and assumptions that scripture can be read in all cases as straightforward history or science actually disrespect the texts as they are. C. S. Lewis pointed out some of the problems with that approach:
Whatever view we hold of the divine authority of Scripture must make room for the following facts:

1. The distinction which St. Paul makes in 1 Cor vii between "[not I but the Lord]" (v.10) and "[I say not the Lord]" (v. 12).
2. The apparent inconsistencies between the genealogies of Matt 1 and Luke 3; with the accounts of the death of Judas in Matt 27:5 and Acts 1: 18-19.
3. St. Luke's own account of how he obtained his matter (1:1-4)
4. The universally admitted unhistoricity (I do not say, of course, falsity of at least some narratives in Scripture (the parables), which may well extend also to Jonah and Job.
5. If every good and perfect gift comes from the father of lights then all true and edifying writing, whether in Scripture or not, must be in some sense inspired.
6. John 11:49-52: Inspiration may operate in a wicked man without his knowing it, and he can then utter the untruth he intends (propriety of making an innocent man a political scapegoat) as well as the truth he does not intend (the divine sacrifice).

It seems to me that 2 and 4 rule out the view that every statement in Scripture must be historical truth. And 1, 3, 5, and 6 rule out the view that inspiration is a single thing in the sense that, if present at all, it is always present in the same mode and the same degree. Therefore, I think, rule out the view that any one passage taken in isolation can be assumed to be inerrant in exactly the same degree as any other: e.g., that the numbers of OT armies (which in view of the size of the country, if true, involve continuous miracle) are statistically correct because the story of the resurrection is historically correct. That the overall operation of Scripture is to convey God's Word to the reader (he also needs inspiration) who reads in the right spirit, I fully believe. That it also gives true answers to all the questions (often religiously irrelevant) which he might ask, I don't. The very kind of truth we are often demanding was, in my opinion, not even envisaged by the ancients." Lewis, Clive Staples., The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis Vol. III, Narnia, Cambridge and Joy,1950-1963, New York, New York, HarperCollins, 2007, p.1044 ff.

In any event, theories of inerrancy do not, in and of themselves, deliver on their promise to make our knowledge of God and our lives more certain. Even among those who believe in concepts like inerrancy and verbal inspiration there is deep disagreement. Conservative Mennonites and most Southern Baptists disagree about the faithfulness of Christian participation in violence. Missouri Synod Lutherans and Baptists disagree about baptism. Orthodox Presbyterians and Free Methodists disagree about predestination. Grace Brethren and Assemblies of God disagree about gifts of the Spirit like healing and speaking in tongues. The list could go on. And some of these are things Christians have been willing to kill each other and/or split the Church over in the past. They only seem more or less trivial to us now. Then, there are the Jehovah Witness folks who also believe in a verbally inspired and inerrant Bible. That has not prevented them from heresy. That particular approach to scripture has not delivered on its promise to give us certain access to God’s truth.

The fact is there is no certain access to God’s truth in any absolute sense. Whatever we think it means for scripture to be inspired, there is no escaping the responsibility to interpret and embody it in our context. There is no one true configuration of scripture that will settle all disagreements. That does not need to mean that scripture is a wax nose that can be bent in any direction we like. The Bible is not a sort of Rorschach test. It cannot be made to mean anything we like. Some configurations are more fox-like and some smell more like a skunk rather then the fragrant sacrifice and offering of Christ who loved us and gave himself for us (Ephesians 5:2).

Unavoidably, we are left relying on the same Spirit who inspired and enchants the scriptures to inspire us and enchant the Church to configure their meaning faithfully – relying on God’s mercy and practicing patience and charity with one another. As the catechism has it, "We understand the meaning of the Bible by the help of the Holy Spirit who guides the Church in the true interpretation of the Scriptures" (BCP, p. 853 - 854).

As Lewis points out, inspiration is not limited to the biblical canon. We might agree with the 17th century preacher, Thomas Manton (1620 – 1677), that, “The Holy Ghost rides most triumphantly in his own chariot.” But we need not limit the Holy Spirit to riding only in the chariot of the scriptures. This was the view of the early church theologians who regularly referred to earlier theologians as “inspired.”

Supposedly, the process by which the Church collected and authorized the canon was in some sense inspired by the Holy Spirit. In fact, the early church had a broader understanding of canon which would have included the rule of faith – the teaching that has been received – and the church’s liturgy. Both of those were used as criteria for deciding which disputed writings were included in the Bible.

We also have the communion of saints before us whose prayerful lives and teaching guide our reading of scripture.

Faithful reading also requires we use our minds to reason with the scriptures. As Nathaniel Culverwel (1619 – 1651) pointed out, “The Holy Ghost is not a bird of prey sent down from heaven to pluck out the eyes of men.” There is understanding to be found in our reasonable attention to the rest of creation. Still, we must acknowledge that while the Spirit does not pluck out our eyes or do away with our capacity to reason, it is through attending to the Spirit through scripture that we learn to see.

Interpreting scripture takes prayerful and careful work. But it is not just work. Faithful reading and configuring calls for an engagement not only of our minds, but of our hearts and imaginations. It invites a sort of serious playfulness as we seek to allow the Spirit to lead us deeper into the heart of God where there is love, and truth, and joy. Our ancestors demonstrated this in their use of allegory, typology and other imaginative or figurative methods of engaging the Bible.

Part 3

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The King or a Fox: Configuring the Mosaic of Scripture

I was invited to make a presentation at a Miqra event put together by the youth leaders of the Diocese of Chicago. I am posting it in installments. Here is part one:

Reading scripture, according to the great 2nd century theologian Irenaeus of Lyons, is like configuring a mosaic of precious jewels. That mosaic can be configured in more ways than one. According to Irenaeus, it can be configured to reveal a portrait of the King – Jesus Christ as the Church knows him – or it can be configured, as it was by heretics and other false teachers, as something else, say a fox.

Playing with that image of the scriptures as a mosaic, imagine each verse or passage of the Bible as a jewel. Perhaps each book of the Bible, then, is like a box of these gems. It is important to understand that these boxes of jewels and gems did not just fall out of the sky. Nor were the boxes/books of the Bible we use the only ones being used by various churches in the earliest centuries. It took many years of reading and worshipping with the books of the Bible and debating about them before the Church decided which "boxes of gems"/books would be considered reliable and authoritative for configuring a portrait of Christ and who we are as members of his body.

Even then there was not total agreement on which books to include and how to configure their meaning. And while a general consensus grew, there has always been disagreement on particulars. To be a member of the Church is to be part of an ongoing conversation as to how best to configure the mosaic of scripture and how to configure our lives in light of scripture. At times we struggle with one another as we struggle together with scripture. How do we configure scripture to reveal Christ rather than a fox? How do we read scripture such that we engage and are engaged by the Spirit of Christ? How do we read scripture honestly such that we are not finding only what we want to find? It will not do to say, “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” But, simply repeating the slogan, “We take the Bible seriously, but not literally,” isn’t much better. How might we explain how we take it seriously and why? Why is this collection of texts authoritative and in what sense? It would be good for us to be able to explain to ourselves and to others how we configure scripture the way we do.

The conversation among Christians about the scriptures takes place in the context of a larger conversation between God and the Church. The Church has always understood that the Holy Spirit in some sense inspires the scriptures such that we encounter the Spirit there with particular authority. They are more than simply a collection of historical religious documents about the spiritual insights of some people long dead. If they are inspired they are lively texts.

In the Outline of the Faith or Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, we read, "We call them the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible" (BCP, p. 853). But, there is no one (and no official) explanation of just what it means for the scriptures to be inspired. One common way of thinking about that is that the Holy Spirit more or less dictated the scriptures word for word. But it might, instead, be more akin (though not reducible) to what we usually think of in the case of those we call "inspired" in the more mundane sense, e.g., Shakespeare, Mozart, Rembrandt. Or maybe it is the community that is filled with the Holy Spirit and then individuals shaped by and in tune with that Spirit have expressed it in writing.

Perhaps the Holy Spirit enchants the scriptures or sometimes haunts them (the Holy Ghost, after all). In that case, reading scripture is like walking through an enchanted forest in which the enchanting Spirit is free to surpise us or haunt us as it will. Or, returning to the image of the mosaic, perhaps various gems and jewels in the several boxes are infused with that enchanting Spirit such that they glow and illumine the mosaic as they are configured in their place.

Whatever else we mean when we claim that the Bible in particular is inspired, we mean something like the following. The scriptures are sacramental. We know that we cannot control where Christ by his Spirit might encounter us. He might surprise us anywhere, any time. But, we claim the promise that he will not surprise us by not being present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist or the waters of baptism. Similarly, we expect to engage and be engaged by the Spirit of Jesus Christ in the scriptures. They are enchanted and haunted by the Holy Spirit/Holy Ghost. The scriptures are not simply the creation of the Church. They are somehow over against us – a Thou rather than an it encounters us there. We cannot understand the scriptures unless we stand under (under/stand) them. We should, therefore, read the Bible with a hermeneutic of expectancy. When we read scripture, we expect to encounter the Spirit of Christ the King.

Part 2

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Suffering and the Wildness of God

A version of the following piece was published in The Living Church after the Indian Ocean tsunami. It's still my best attempt at making some sense of such things. Here it is updated to address the earthquake in Haiti:

The earthquake in Haiti has raised with fresh urgency the perennial question of belief in God in the shadow of suffering. The magnitude of the tragedy and its seeming randomness are awe-inspiring and dumbfounding. What can one say to make sense of such a catastrophe? Where is God in all of this and what kind of God would allow such things?

Christians should be wary of nice and tidy answers to such questions. But, it is also unsatisfactory to allow ourselves to slip into a speechless agnosticism. What, with due caution and humility, can we say?

Among other things, it is good to remember that removing God from the equation does not resolve the mystery of suffering. The flipside of the question, “How can there be a good God when there is so much suffering in the world?” are the questions, “If there is no God and no meaning, why do I care about the suffering in the world?” and “Why should I?” Indeed, if there is no God, reality is indifferent to all suffering. And there is no real reason for us not to be indifferent. Our inclination otherwise is only conditioned sentimentalism. If there is no God, we can only conclude that we have evolved into an existential cul-de-sac in which we have now come to see the emptiness of the belief in meaning and human worth that helped us evolve this far but are still stuck with the deep vestigial instinct for meaning and worth.

But, that is a dry and weary land where no water is. And humans cannot live there. However much the logic of our minds, absent God, might say that there is no meaning, our hearts cry out in contradiction, “No!” Our hearts insist that there is meaning. It’s not a matter of indifference. We do not believe that the offense and sorrow we feel in the wake of the devastation of the earthquake is just an offense against our personal preferences, but an offense against the very fabric of reality.

Still, the questions remain. Where is God in all of this? What kind of God allows such things? These are questions that beg answers. And so, we create answers. Whether to protect God or to bring tragedy under control, we invent ways to explain the suffering that befalls us and others.

One way that some have sought to resolve the questions is to suggest that God cannot intervene in historical and physical reality. But, that hardly seems to do justice to the Christian revelation even if it appears to get God off the hook.

Another common answer is that it is God’s way of getting back at us for our sins. Tragedy and suffering are divine payback. Apparently Pat Robertson has again expressed this kind of thinking.

The idea of reincarnation is a related way of addressing the reality of suffering. You get what you deserve, if not in this life, in the next. And whatever you get in this life, good or bad, is the result of what you earned in lives before. Everything that happens to you is karmic payback. The karmic ledger, sooner or later, will be balanced. Reincarnation is a clear and logical answer to why there is suffering.

But, to all such attempts to explain suffering, Jesus says, “No.” In Luke 13:1-9, some people come to Jesus, and ask, “What about the people who were murdered by Pilate and whose blood was mingled with their sacrifices? Were they killed because of their sins?” Jesus responded, “No.” “What about the people who were killed in the accident in Siloam when the tower fell on them? Did they die because of their sins?” Again, Jesus answers, “No.” Jesus does not offer a nice and neat answer to why there is such suffering. His response in the gospel is uncomfortably blunt. In essence he says “The suffering of others, the tragic deaths of others, might well give us pause to remind ourselves that our time also is short and we have no guarantees of how long we will be around. Therefore, today is the day to repent. Today is the day to turn and seek God. Today is the day to love God and neighbor.”

It is not a very sentimental approach. But, Jesus is not sentimental when speaking of God or the human condition. And for that I am thankful. Sentimental images of a Nice Guy in The Sky don’t cut it when we are confronted with real tragedies like earthquakes or tsunamis or hurricanes, or, for that matter, real personal tragedies like injury and disease. Nor do romantic notions of human nature or the nature of creation. Reality demands something wilder.

The world is a wild place. In creating the world in which we live, God makes space for us and for all creation to be free. That means God also makes space for us to make a mess of it, to make a mess of one another, to make a mess of ourselves. And it means there is space for things like cancer cells and earthquakes. It also means that the God who creates such a world must be as wild as the wildness it contains. Why does God have to make so much space for freedom? Why does God tolerate so much suffering and injustice? Why has God created such a world? If God is at the heart of it all – the Creator and Sustainer – God is not off the hook.

Which is, of course, the point of the gospel. On the cross, God himself is on the hook. In Jesus Christ, God enters into the mess that we have made of the world. And God enters into the wildness of the world God has created. On the cross, God in Christ takes on the pain and suffering of the world. The world’s passion becomes Christ’s passion. God transforms that passion into the promise of resurrection. There is the promise that we too will be transformed – the suffering of the world will not be lost, but gathered up and transformed in resurrection. By his wounds, we will be healed. And so will be the rest of creation which eagerly awaits being set free from its bondage to futility and decay.

We live in a world of great suffering and great injustice. It can be a hard place to live. It can be a hard place to believe in God – especially the generic God of human imagination. But the God we know in Jesus Christ is not a God of our own imagining. The God we know is the God of the cross. Karl Barth wrote, “God earns the right to be God in this world on the cross.” God earns the right to be God in this world - with all its pain, suffering, injustice, and tragedy – on the cross. French poet, Paul Caudel, wrote, “Jesus did not come to remove suffering, or to explain it away. He came to fill it with His presence.” Jesus does not explain suffering. He fills it with his presence and the promise of its transformation in the final resurrection of which his is the foretaste.

It does not resolve all the questions or remove all the pain, or eliminate all the anger resulting from something like the devastation in Haiti. But a God wild enough to create and sustain such a world as ours and wild enough to pour his love out on the hard wood of the cross is wild enough to absorb our questions, pain and anger.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Epiphany and Holy Days of Expectation

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany in which we celebrate the manifestation of Jesus’ divine nature and the light he sheds in our hearts and in the world. While it is a Principle Feast Day of the church calendar and has in some times and places been held in great honor, for many in the contemporary church in America, it seems a bit of an afterthought. Is this, perhaps because we’ve allowed too much meaning and importance to be placed upon Christmas? For whatever the reason, we should reclaim the significance of Epiphany.

This has me wondering about major feast days in general. In the Roman Catholic Church, there are Holy Days of Obligation when faithful Catholics are obliged to be at worship:
"On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass. Moreover they are to abstain from those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body." Canon 1247.
According to Roman Catholic canon 1246:
"Sunday, on which by apostolic tradition the paschal mystery is celebrated, must be observed in the universal Church as the primordial holy day of obligation. The following days must also be observed: the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Epiphany, the Ascension, the Body and Blood of Christ, Holy Mary the Mother of God, her Immaculate Conception, her Assumption, Saint Joseph, Saint Peter and Saint Paul the Apostles, and All Saints."

Holy Days of Obligation have not been part of the Anglican tradition. We have typically been less inclined to legislate the particulars of our piety. Still, Holy Days are set apart for us to celebrate together who God is and what God has done for us. As such they are occasions for rejoicing that are both formative and edifying. Christians might be expected to gather for worship and the celebration of the Eucharist on such days.

Along with Sundays, I suggest that Episcopalians would do well to consider the Principle Feasts found on p. 15 of the Book of Common Prayer (Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, All Saints’, Christmas, and Epiphany) as "Hoy Days of Expectation". At least on these days we should expect to participate in the Eucharist and “abstain from those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body.”

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Seraphim of Sarov and the Burden of One Another

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Today is the Feast Day of Seraphim of Sarov in the Orthodox Church. Seraphim is not widely known in the West, but he is an intriguing and inspiring saint. He has sometimes been referred to as the Russian St. Francis given his humble way of life and unusual relationship with wild animals. For years, he lived in an isolated hermitage where

Only the birds and the wild beasts visited him, and he dwelt with them as Adam did in Paradise. They came at midnight and waited for him to complete his Rule of prayer. Then he would feed bears, lynxes, foxes, rabbits, and even wolves with bread from his hand. St Seraphim also had a bear which would obey him and run errands for him.

Here is another story from his life that I find particularly interesting and edifying:

One day, three robbers in search of money or valuables once came upon him while he was working in his garden. The robbers demanded money from him. Though he had an axe in his hands, and could have put up a fight, but he did not want to do this, recalling the words of the Lord: "Those who take up the sword will perish by the sword" (Mt. 26: 52). Dropping his axe to the ground, he said, "Do what you intend." The robbers beat him severely and left him for dead. They wanted to throw him in the river, but first they searched the cell for money. They tore the place apart, but found nothing but icons and a few potatoes, so they left. The monk, regained consciousness, crawled to his cell, and lay there all night.

In the morning he reached the monastery with great difficulty. The brethren were horrified, seeing the ascetic with several wounds to his head, chest, ribs and back. For eight days he lay there suffering from his wounds. Doctors called to treat him were amazed that he was still alive after such a beating. For the rest of his life Seraphim walked hunched over and in pain.
This and the quote above are borrowed from here.

Years passed and Serapim’s reputation as a holy man grew. Eventually, he began to receive visitors offering them spiritual counsel as well as physical and emotional healing. One morning,

Seraphim’s three aggressors [the three who had beaten him so badly years ago] appeared on his clearing. They were led by a huge one with a red face, who sobbed like a child. When Seraphim ran forward to greet them, they fell on their knees and touched the ground at his feet with their foreheads.

“Forgive us, man of God, forgive us and tell us what penance we must do. Lord have mercy upon us! Shall we leave our families, journey to the Holy Land, chasten our sinful flesh under the monk’s habit?

Seraphim raised them up from their knees. “Go back to your families and your work; strive to be loving to your wives, children, parents, and to each other, to all. You’ll find it hard enough. Try to be of good cheer and sin no more. I’ll do penance for you, I’ll carry your load on my back. Go in peace.” (Flame in the Snow by Julia de Beausobre, P. 104).

For the rest of his life, Serphim carried a bag of rocks slung over his hunched-over back. When he returned to life in community he substituted a large, heavy iron cross around his neck. He thus bore the burden of his attackers.

I am moved by the tenderness with which Seraphim treats his former attackers and the gentle charge he lays on them which he admits they will find hard enough. But, more, I wonder at his offering to do penance for them.

I am not sure what it might mean to do penance for someone else’s sins. But, I do appreciate what I take to be Serphim's recognition that we belong more intimately to one another than we are often inclined to admit. If indeed we are "the body of Christ and individually members of it" and "if one member suffers, all suffer together with it" then perhaps our responsibility for one another runs as deep as Seraphim's actions imply. Might it even be that the charge to "bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ" could include bearing the burdens of each other's sin? Perhaps this is what a life of forgiveness is about.

I wonder if bearing one another's burdens might also mean bearing the burden of one another. How often do we distance ourselves from the "burden" of others who we find burdensome? How different would disagreements in church (at any level) - or, for that matter, family and political disagreements - look if we understood those with whom we disagree as members of ourselves whose burden we are to bear even if they have hurt us, even when bearing with them weighs on our hearts like a bag of rocks over our shoulder? Would we be as quick to relish the latest outrage of our foes? Would we speak of them with derision and disdain? Would we dismiss their questions and concerns with contempt? What if we, like Seraphim, attempted penance on behalf of those with whom we disagree or who we find most disagreeable? Or at the very least what if we practiced bearing the load that is the other for the sake of our own souls?