Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What is more grievous than the sin of condemning one's neighbour?

"What is more grievous than the sin of condemning one's neighbour? What else is so hateful and alienating to God? And yet a person comes to this great evil through something seemingly unimportant - from allowing himself a small censure of his neighbour. For when this is allowed the mind begins to leave its own sins without attention and notice the sins of its neighbour. And this leads to gossip, reproaches, speaking evil and, finally, pernicious condemnation. Yet nothing angers God more, nothing despoils a person and leads so surely to perdition as fault-finding, speaking evil and condemning one's neighbour." Paragraph 34

"At times we not only condemn but bring our neighbor into contempt. For it is one thing to condemn, and another to bring into contempt. To bring into contempt means when a person not only condemns but also despises another, scorns him and turns away from him as from an abomination. This is worse than condemnation and much more pernicious." Para. 38

"Those who want to be saved pay no attention to the failings of their neighbours, but always look for their own and make progress" Para. 39

- Directions on Spiritual Training by Dorotheus of Gaza (6th century)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Hopeful Universalism of Macrina (and her little brother Gregory of Nyssa)

Today is the feast day of Macrina (330-379), older sister and theological/spiritual mentor of Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa, two of the most formative theologians and leaders of the early church.

In his book, On the Soul and the Resurrection, Gregory recounts a dialogue with Macrina in which he asks her a series of questions about the nature of the soul and the resurrection and related things. It might be that Gregory uses Macrina as a literary device to convey his own thoughts similar to the way Plato sometimes uses Socrates in his dialogues. Or maybe this really conveys things he learned directly from Macrina. In any event his respect for her is clear. Towards the end of On the Soul and the Resurrection, Macrina says this:

To evaluate the way a person has lived, the judge would need to examine all these factors: how he endured suffering, dishonor, disease, old age, maturity, youth, wealth, and poverty; how through each of these situations he ran the course of the life allotted to him either well or badly; and whether he became able to receive many good things or many evil things in a long lifetime or did not reach even the beginning of either good or evil, ceasing to live when his mind was not yet fully developed. But when God brings our nature back to the first state of man by the resurrection, it would be pointless to mention such matters and to suppose that the power of God is hindered from this goal by such obstructions.

He has one goal: when the whole fullness of our nature has been perfected in each man, some straightway even in this life purified from evil, others healed hereafter through fire for the appropriate length of time, and others ignorant of the experience equally of good and of evil in the life here, God intends to set before everyone the participation of the good things in Him, which the Scripture says eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor thought attained.

This is nothing else, according to my judgment, but to be in God Himself; for the good which is beyond hearing, sight, and heart would be that very thing which surpasses everything. But the difference between a life of virtue and a life of wickedness will appear hereafter chiefly in allowing us to participate earlier or later in the blessedness which we hope for. The duration of the healing process will undoubtedly be in proportion to the measure of evil which has entered each person. This process of healing the soul would consist of cleansing it from evil. This cannot be accomplished without pain, as we have discussed previously.
- On the Soul and the Resurrection, pp. 115-116

Note that Macrina and Gregory are not soft on the reality of death and judgment - this cannot accomplished without pain. There is still good reason to take our own piety with utmost seriousness and to invite others to participate now in "the blessedness which we hope for."

They do seem, however, to understand The Judgment as having more to do with purgation and healing than final eternal punishment and torture. It is unclear whether or not they believed it is possible that some souls might hold out eternally against blessedness. But, they seem convinced that God, in his relentless love, will never give up on anyone - even beyond death and forever.

This hopeful universalism is quite different from an "all-y, all-y in come free" complacent universalism. I find it appealing.

See: Where is Your Precious? (on Judgement & Hell)

Friday, July 15, 2011

F. D. Maurice on the Creed

“All superstition, all priestcraft, in its worst and most evil sense -- we cannot repeat this proposition too often, or put it in too many shapes -- has its root in vague, indefinite religious apprehensions; not resting upon the knowledge and confession of a Being who is not our image, but who has declared Himself to us that we might receive His image”

Radical Centrist Manifesto VIII
III. Centered in the Body of Christ,
Part 2: Centered in the Creed, ii


Frederick Denison Maurice (1805-1872) was one of the great (some have argued he was the greatest) Anglican theologians of the 19th century. Maurice (pronounced like Morris) critiqued the usual church factions of his day and was seen as suspect by each of them as a result. He was hardly a conservative. He was accused of being a universalist. He was an early proponent of "Christian Socialism" which also made him suspect to both "unsocial Christians" and "unChristian socialists."

But he was also critical of liberal theology: “Every hope I had for human culture, for the reconciliation of opposing schools, for blessings to mankind, was based on theology. What sympathy then could I have with the Liberal Party, which was emphatically anti-theological, which was ready to tolerate all opinion in theology only because people could know nothing about it?"

In our own era of church factionalism, I appreciate Maurice's ability cut across party lines to engage appreciatively and critically with just about everyone. One might say he was something of a radical centrist.

The following is from a sermon of Maurice's on the significance of the Creed:

Let us understand this well, brethren, for it is very important in reference to notions that are current in the present day. If there is to be a religion of trust, and not of slavish cowardly fear, that religion must have a Revelation, the revelation of a Name for its basis. A religion which creates its own object cannot be one of trust. I cannot rest upon that which I feel and know that I have made for myself. I cannot trust in that which I look upon as a form of my own mind or a projection from it. . . Neither can I trust in any shadowy, impalpable essence, or in any Soul of the world. If this be the God I worship, my worship will be one of doubt and distrust, whenever it is at all sincere. If I do not seek all strange, monstrous means of propitiating the unknown Being, it is only because I am altogether uncertain whether he is real enough for such services. . . All superstition, all priestcraft, in its worst and most evil sense -- we cannot repeat this proposition too often, or put it in too many shapes -- has its root in vague, indefinite religious apprehensions; not resting upon the knowledge and confession of a Being who is not our image, but who has declared Himself to us that we might receive His image . . .

But the question -- How is He a Father, how do I know He is? cannot be evaded. The Church had no wish to evade it. She acknowledged that something more was implied in the Revelation of a Father than His Name; that there must be some one to reveal Him. She proclaimed the Name of His only-begotten Son, our Lord. She says that He revealed Himself as he Son of God by being conceived of the Holy Ghost our Lord, by being born of the Virgin Mary, by suffering our death, our burial, by going down into the Hell we tremble to think of; by facing all our enemies visible and invisible, all that we actually know we must meet, all that our imagination dreams of; that He rose again from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat down on the right of the Father, and will come again to judge the quick and the dead.

If God be absolute, eternal love, as St, Augustine makes the Catechist affirm, how has he shewn it? Has it come forth, or is it all hidden in his own nature? Has it come forth to some other creature, or to man? Has it met him where he needs to be met or somewhere else? Has it encountered the actual woes of mankind, or only those which affect a particular set of men? Has it been found mightier than these, or has it sunk under them? Has this love been cheerfully entertained, or did it encounter ingratitude? Was the ingratitude too strong for the love, or the love for the ingratitude? Is the victory for all times, or only for that time? Is He who you say is our Lord really our Lord? Does He reign over us? Will he leave all things just as they are, or set them right at last? These questions have a claim to be answered; that is no Gospel to humanity which does not answer them; the Christian Church said, 'This is the answer' . . . And again, supposing the words be true, all we have to do is to proclaim them and live upon them. He who has sent us into the world for that end can prove them. Those that know His Name will trust in Him, and so they find that He has not deceived them.

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Friday, July 8, 2011

Centered in the Creed

Radical Centrist Manifesto VII
III. Centered in the Body of Christ,
Part 2: Centered in the Creed


"The Apostles' Creed [is] the Baptismal Symbol and the Nicene Creed [is] the sufficient statement of the Christian faith." Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral (1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 877)

The Christian creed enunciates a powerful and provocative understanding of the world, one that ought to scandalize a world that runs on the accepted truths of Modernity. There is something in the creed to offend virtually every contemporary sensibility. At the same time it communicates a compelling vision of the world’s destiny and humanity’s role that challenges the accustomed idolatries and the weary platitudes of current worldly wisdom. p. 7

The creed provides the boundaries of Christian belief and therefore of the Christian community. p. 49-50
Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters

As a Radical Christian Centrist, I seek to be centered in the Creed (by which I mean both the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed). I am wary of attempts make that Creed more palatable to this or that contemporary intellectual fashion.

1. But, isn't one's faith about one's relationship with the living God and with God's children. Can’t we just say Love God and love your neighbor and leave it at that?

We can, I suppose, if we already think we know something about these things before we get to the Creed. "God" is a meaningless word until it is given meaning. To say "Just love God with your whole heart mind and soul" only begs the question "Who, or what, is this 'god' I am to love and what does it mean to love this 'god'?” As for loving neighbors (let alone enemies), why should I? And in what way? Why is it so hard to do? And, for that matter, what does it mean to be human? And what kind of a world do we live in? Any answer to those questions takes us into the realm of belief and doctrine. The Creed is the basic Christian answer to those questions. You might prefer other answers or make up your own, but you cannot talk about “god”, “love”, or “human beings” without some sort of belief system, i.e., a creed.

It is inadequate to appeal to a simplistic pietism, whether in its more conservative or more liberal versions, that says "Don't bother me with doctrine, just give me Jesus". We have no access to Jesus other than the Gospels which are soaked in interpretation (doctrine) of who Jesus is and why it matters. And the creeds are the Christian guide to understanding God in light of Jesus.

2. Can’t we just worship God without getting hung up with the Creed?

Again, that presumes some knowledge (creed) about God and what it means to worship.

In any event, within my Episcopal/Anglican tradition, getting rid of or ignoring the Creed would not resolve things for those who don’t like it. The rest of the liturgy is rife with the same story and the same imagery.

Further, the Creed and worship are integrally related:
Nicene Christianity has also understood orthodoxy in a richer and deeper sense: as right praise. To be orthodox is to strive to stand rightly with others before the mystery of the true God. To be orthodox is to join with a community of faith in adoration of God’s dora (glory), which already casts light on the day when God will finally make everything right. Belief is never correct when it becomes nothing more than a political mechanism to ensure the unity of an institution. Belief is right only when it points us in the right direction: to glorification of the true God, who promises not to give us a secret wisdom, but to be graciously present to us, even and especially where our vision and knowledge are weak.
John Burgess, Going Creedless

3. But isn’t the language of the Creed poetic, rich in metaphors?

Quite so. And we should always remember that lest we begin to think we have comprehended God who is always beyond our comprehending. In fact, you'd have a hard time finding a theologian of the early church who did not say the same. They were not so naive as moderns often suppose. Over and over again, the early theologians remind us that all our language for God is stammering. All images must be held lightly. And yet those same theologians also affirm that we must speak of God because God has spoken a Word to us – in history. Thus, while we can only speak metaphorically about God’s nature, we can bear witness to God’s action. "The impossibility has become a possibility by the boundless excellence of the grace of God," is how Origen put it.

Because it is about God, much of the Creed is metaphorical. Because it is about the God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus much of it is not metaphorical, but historical (i.e., everything from “became incarnate” through “he rose again”). That has always been the scandal of Christianity to the philosophers and Gnostics (ancient and contemporary) who want to keep God safely on the side of the metaphorical (protecting God or themselves?). But, Christians confess an historical virgin birth to an historical Mary of an historical infleshment of God who died an historical death under an historical Pontius Pilate, but lives again through an historical resurrection leaving behind an historical empty tomb – all "for us and for our salvation".

The Creed is part poetry, part prose. Indeed, one might say that in the incarnation, God (ultimately hidden in Metaphor) has become prosaic in order to turn all to poetry. Trying to keep them strictly separate or make it all one or the other always gets us into trouble.

To say that our language about God’s essence is metaphorical is a theological truism. To conclude that therefore all metaphors are only human creations or that all metaphors are more or less equal are assumptions and theological falsehoods. To say that all language about God acting in history, e.g., the virginal conception, the incarnation, and the bodily resurrection as historical, physical events, is metaphorical and only true in some spiritual sense is to try to be more spiritual than the God we know though Jesus has deigned to be. The God we know through Jesus and the creeds is a God who is prepared to get down and dirty in the material world to address the very literal, tragic mess we have made of ourselves, others, and the world.

4. But, I read or heard somewhere that the root meaning of credo is to “give the heart” so intellectual assent is not the point.

To say that the root meaning of credo is to “give the heart” and reduce its meaning to only that is like saying that every time Richard Dawkins says, “Good bye,” he really means, “God be with ye.” However helpful it might be in adding color to our understanding, the meaning of words and phrases are not reducible to their roots. The meanings of words evolve. What did credo mean to those who used it in the 4th century? One need only look at the historical development of the creeds to know that they were meant to delineate right belief from wrong belief as well as to shape the direction of the heart.

Both are necessary. You cannot give your heart to something without some knowledge or belief about that to which you are giving your heart. And you cannot truly come to know something without giving your heart to it. Love and knowledge go together. You are not supposed to be able to say it with integtity if you find it incredible (a related word). The very reason for trying to shift the meaning of credo from intellectual assent is self-contradictory in as much as it is based on the conclusion that some aspects of the creed are not intellectually credible.

Reducing of the creeds to “matters of the heart” regardless of their intellectual meaning tailors them to the heritage of a na├»ve romanticism. It is an odd thing to do for those who (as many Episcopalians love to do) pride themselves on being in the “thinking person’s church”.

5. Can’t I just say the creed as an indication that I am seeking God and meaning as best I can within a tradition that has this particular historical linguistic heritage?

Continuing to say the words of the creeds without intellectual assent and meaning them in the common sense warps language. Either we mean it or we don’t. Or we stretch the meaning of words beyond all logic. What if we used the same approach to language with the marriage vows? Can I have an affair and then tell my wife she needs to get over her unsophisticated, literalistic interpretation of “forsaking all others”?

6. That doesn’t leave much room for doubt.

The issue is not about doubt or judging those who struggle with this or that aspect of the Creed. I have no problem with honest struggle with the Creed – historical or otherwise. I have my share, though as I've said elsewhere, there are implications of the Creed that I struggle with more than things like the virgin birth or bodily resurrection. Thankfully it is not up to us to believe this or that bit of the Creed on our own - as we sometimes pray, "regard not our sins, but the faith of your Church" (1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 395). Sometimes others believe for us. In spite of any personal struggle, the Creed is the standard of Church teaching. At the very least, it is what Christians aspire to believe and conform their lives to – however inadequately.

One thing I do object to is when official teachers and leaders of the Church go beyond doubting and publically reject the Creed of the Church. Why should anyone consider us credible - again, a related word - if our preaching and teaching contradict the rest of what we say in worship? Or if all we have to offer is doubt and more questions? The latter is almost always a power move that hides the real answers those who claim to be about questions are actually peddling.

Doubts, whether about orthodoxy or orthopraxy, arise when one way of understanding how the world works and how God engages the world comes into conflict with another. But that cuts both ways. Questioning the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection, for example, is unsettling to one way of understanding things. Believing them is unsettling to others.

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Related:

Virginal Conception and Other Preposterous Things

John Updike on the Apostles' Creed

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Dorotheos and the Wheel of Love

Dorotheos of Gaza (d. 620) is one of my favorite teachers from the early church. I have blogged a bit about him before. Here is the ending of a sermon Dorotheos preached On Refusal to Judge our Neighbor:

Each one according to his means should take care to be at one with everyone else, for the more one is united to his neighbor the more he is united to God.

And now I give you an example from the Fathers. Suppose we were to take a compass and insert the point and draw an outline of a circle. The centre point is the same distance from any point on the circumference. Now concentrate your minds on what is to be said! Let us consider that this circle is the world and that God himself is the centre; the straight lines drawn from the circumference to the centre are the lives of men. To the extent that the saints enter into the things of the spirit, they desire to come near to God; and in proportion to their progress in the things of the spirit, they do indeed come close to God and to their neighbor. The closer they are to God, the closer they become to one another; and the closer they are to one another the closer they become to God.

Now consider in the same context the question of separation; for when they stand away from God and turn to external things, it is clear that the more they recede and become distant from God, the more they become distant from one another. See! This is the very nature of love. The more we are turned away from and do not love God, the greater the distance that separates us from our neighbor. If we were to love God more, we should be closer to God, and through love of him we should be more united in love to our neighbor; and the more we are united to our neighbor the more we are united to God.

May God make us worthy to listen to what is fitting for us and do it. For in the measure that we pay attention and take care to carry out what we hear, God will always enlighten us and make us understand his will.

Discourses & Syaings, Desert Humor & Humility, p. 138-139

I recommend the whole book which is full of wisdom, encouragement, and challenge. I have found Dorotheos’ image of the wheel to be particularly fruitful and inspiring. It helps me understand Jesus’ Summary of the Law –"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it: You shall love you neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets." (Mathew 22:37-40). It helps me understand the church as the school of that twofold love.

I wonder if one way to measure our faithfulness – our prayer, our worship, our thoughts, our speech, our actions, etc. – might be to assess whether they move us further along the line toward the centre of that wheel. If what we are about does not move us closer to God/neighbor and neighbor/God maybe we should be about something else.

Other related posts:

Basil the Great on Whose Feet Will You Wash?

Seraphim of Sarov and the Burden of One Another

Friday, July 1, 2011

Individuals or Persons in Communion?

Radical Centrist Manifesto VI
III. Centered in the Body of Christ, Part 1: Persons in Communion


In an earlier post in this series I pointed out that American conservatives and liberals/progressives have more in common than usually assumed given their shared heritage in Classic Liberalism. Both, in their way, are attached to individualism.

Politically, this gets played out differently as each focuses on different ways in which the individual should be unrestrained, or minimally restrained, by responsibilities for and accountabilities to others beyond those the individual volunteers to recognize. Both appeal to the state as the provider of individual rights and the protector of the individual over against other social bodies. Thus, both collude in the notion that the individual is the basic human unit and the state is the ultimate social body.

Within the church, this gets played out as each, in its way gives priority of the individual over the communion of the church. Some conservatives tend to focus on individual salvation in ways that minimize any other gospel concerns and ignore the interrelated nature of humanity and creation. In such an approach the church serves primarily as the place individuals go to get their respective relationships with Jesus reinforced, but the church, as the body of Christ, is basically nonessential.

Although they tend not to talk about individual salvation, many liberal/progressives reinforce the ideology of individualism by inviting individuals “wherever they are in their (individual) journey of faith” to the Eucharist regardless of baptism. In this approach, the church is also nonessential, becoming just one place where individuals can go to get their idiosyncratic spiritual needs addressed – a sort of public spiritual restaurant where individuals come and go.

During the last eight years or so, during the turmoil in the Anglican/Episcopal Church, I have heard both conservatives and liberal/progressives dismiss ecclesiology (the lived theology of the church) as a secondary (at best) concern. Both those who have pursued schism and those who have provoked it dismiss a robust understanding of the church as unnecessary for understanding soteriology (theology of salvation) or for achieving justice, peace, or other this-worldly endeavors as (defined with or without the church’s scripture or tradition).

For both, the church is basically a free association of individuals with little real commitment, loyalty, responsibility, or accountability. Thus, we have individual “church shopping”, individual congregations shopping for the province that suits them, schism within the Episcopal Church, and a rejection of mutual accountability in the Anglican Communion. And we participate in and reinforce a culture in which few loyalties or vows endure.

For both, the church becomes “no people” (Hosea 1:9). But, if we are radically centered on Jesus, we will be centered in the community he started with his disciples. The God we know through Israel and Jesus is a God who all calls and forms those who were no people to be a people (1 Peter 2:9-10) in covenant with himself and one another. The church – the physical, historical, institutional reality – is that people.

Thus to be Christ-centered is to be church-centered. We will recognize the interconnectedness of salvation and the necessity of being incorporated into and belonging to the church in order to fully live into that salvation.

We will respect the dignity of every human being. But, we will train ourselves to think of human beings in terms of persons-formed-in-communion as opposed to free, isolatable individuals - persons with whom we are inherently connected, whose burden we are to bear (Galatians 6:2), whose feet we are to wash (John 13). For more on this distinction see this: Person vs Individual

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Rather than go on to write more of what I've already written elsewhere on this, here are some other posts where I have tried to explain the necessity of the church and its members as a communion of persons:

Charged With the Holy Spirit

ONE, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church

Whose Feet Will You Wash?

Baptized into Eucharist