Friday, May 27, 2005

Bishop Spong and his Clerical Collar

I finally saw Resurrection: Searching for Answers, a 20/20 special on ABC. For a secular report, I found it balanced. I’m so relieved that ABC did not once again display their collection of hackneyed "scholars" from the Jesus Seminar, peddling their Nineteenth Century observations as new and enlightened. For those interested in that dog and pony show, 20/20 did give air time to Bishop John Shelby Spong.

On the ABC special, like every television appearance of him that I’ve seen, Bishop Spong was dressed in his clerical collar. The clerical collar symbolizes being chained or enslaved to Jesus Christ. Such language bothers the bishop. One might wonder why Spong chooses to display such backward and primitive symbols. My guess is that Spong wishes to gain media attention. Put any old critic of Christianity in a clerical collar, and you have an exciting scandal on your hand. He uses the instant credibility gained from wearing the collar to deny cherished truths of the faith, such as the resurrection. Whether he intends it or not, the clerical collar serves as a Trojan horse allowing his every attack to score greater damage. Interestingly, the retired right reverend who rails against the hierarchical church has no qualms about benefitting from his rank. Hypocrisy, plain and simple.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Trinity III: Creative Language

Some who have read the last few posts probably think that I’m just cranky and unappreciative of metaphor and creative language. The draft authors cite John Calvin’s commentary on Isaiah 46:3, suggesting his openness to female imagery in speaking about God. Although I quoted the verse in the last post, here it is again.

“Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb;” (Isaiah 46:3, NRSV)
The verse does give feminine characteristics to God. Here is what John Calvin writes.

…Here the Prophet beautifully points out the vast difference between the true God and idols. Having formerly said that the Babylonian gods must be drawn on waggons and carts, because they consist of dead matter, he now ascribes a widely different office to the God of Israel, namely, that he "carries" his people, like a mother, who carries the child in her womb, and afterwards carries it in her bosom…

This is a very expressive metaphor, by which God compares himself to a mother who carries a child in her womb. He speaks of the past time, when he began to give them testimonies of his grace. Yet the words might be taken as meaning simply that God kindly nourished that people, like an infant taken from its mother's womb, and carried it in his bosom…

If it be objected, that God is everywhere called "a Father," and that this title is more appropriate to him, I reply, that no figures of speech can describe God's extraordinary affection towards us; for it is infinite and various; so that, if all that can be said or imagined about love were brought together into one, yet it would be surpassed by the greatness of the love of God. By no metaphor, therefore, can his incomparable goodness be described. If you understand it, simply to mean that God, from the time that he begat them, gently carried and nourished them in his bosom, this will agree admirably with what we find in the Song of Moses,

"He bore them, and carried them, as an eagle carrieth her young on her wings."

In a word, the intention of the Prophet is to shew, that the Jews, if they do not choose to forget their descent, cannot arrive at any other conclusion than that they were not begotten in vain, and that God, who has manifested himself to be both their Father and their Mother, will always assist them; and likewise, that they have known his power by uninterrupted experience, so that they ought not to pay homage to idols.
“God cares for us like a mother.” “We suckle upon the word which God alone gives.” I can accept creative language, even feminine imagery for God. Still, I am concerned about the limitations of all theological language. Whether traditional or new, theological language must never be used to further an ideology. Likewise, the acceptance of feminine imagery for God does not mean the replacement of the traditional formulation of the Trinity.

Calvin suggests, at least here, that he himself is not too bothered by feminine imagery for God. If we grant that Calvin was a pretty smart guy, one might ask why he did not discard the traditional formulation of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Calvin did not even supplement the traditional language with the “historically faithful yet freshly imaginative”. Perhaps one reason might be that with other language we would lose too much. The Trinity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit says much about our understanding of Christology and soteriology. Other formulations are lacking. Be creative, but avoid giving up the heart of the faith.

Trinity II: Muddy Metaphor

I’m still considering the recent document produced by a task force of the PCUSA, “The Trinity: God’s Love Overflowing.” As I mentioned in my last post, our language for the Trinity is not a simple analogy which can be changed with creative whim. Nonetheless, the authors of the draft statement give us several new examples declaring them, “historically faithful yet freshly imaginative.” Here are some examples:

As we worship, the Triune God is the One to Whom, the One by Whom, and the One in Whom we offer our praise (Basil of Caesarea).

As we seek God's grace and wholeness, acknowledging the sin and brokenness in us, our human communities, and the creation, the Triune God is our Rainbow of Promise, our Ark of Salvation, and our Dove of Peace.

As we read, proclaim, hear, and live out the message of Scripture, theTriune God is known to us as Speaker, Word, and Breath.

In baptism, the Triune God is for us Overflowing Font, Living Water, Flowing River. (BCW, p. 412; John 4:10, 13-14; John 7:37).

As we are born anew by water and the Spirit, the Triune God is Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child, and Life-giving Womb (Isaiah 49:15; 66:13; Matthew 3:17; Isaiah 46:3).

As we grow in grace, the Triune God is our Sun, Ray, and Warmth (Gregory of Nyssa).

As we offer ourselves, our resources, and our gratitude in stewardship and Eucharist, the Triune God is Giver, Gift, and Giving.

In celebrating the communion of our life together in Christ, the Triune God is Lover, Beloved, and the Love that binds together Lover and Beloved (Augustine).

As members of the believing community, we acknowledge the Triune God as our Rock, Cornerstone, and Temple (Psalm 28:1, Ephesians 2:20-21).

When we must speak of God's wrath in the face of evil, the Triune God is for us Fire that Consumes, Hammer that Breaks, Storm that Melts Mountains(Hebrews 12:20, Jeremiah 23:29, Psalm 97:5).

Each of these examples is problematic.

I can’t speak to each of the historical examples, but I am aware that Augustine’s formulation is taken from his theological analysis. I suspect the references to Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa similarly taken from larger theological works. Using this formulations apart from the greater theological context is misleading. Moreover, Augustine uses his language to clarify the meaning of the Trinity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit not replace it.

In addition, the scriptural examples are not actually scriptural. Instead, the images are strewn together by cutting and pasting biblical metaphor and language. Just because each component of the threesome may reference Scripture, the whole is not necessarily the sum of its parts. The internal relationship within the three is not implied by the Scripture itself. For example, although each of the words, rock, cornerstone and temple, exist in Scripture, they do not exist together. For that matter, what is the relationship between rock, cornerstone and temple? Is the Cornerstone hewn from the Rock? Are the bricks of the Temple hewn from the Rock? What is the real relationship between the three? Is that relationship consistent with what we know about the Trinity?

Likewise, the biblical references for many of the examples are suspect. Consider the following examples:

…the Triune God is our Rainbow of Promise, our Ark of Salvation, and our Dove of Peace.

Here is a biblical allusion to the story of Noah. I actually like the comparison between the Son of God, Jesus Christ, and the ark which saves humanity. Granted, the ark has often been used as a symbol for the Church, but the themes of salvation in the story are rich. However, calling the first person of the Trinity a rainbow misses the mark. It confuses the sign of God’s covenant with God. Likewise, the internal relationship between rainbow, ark, and dove also seems remote to the Trinity.

…we acknowledge the Triune God as our Rock, Cornerstone, and Temple.

The most confusing reference here is for the third person of the Trinity. Consider the Scriptural reference:

In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Ephesians 2:21-22)

It’s pretty clear from the context that the Temple is the community of faith, the Church. The Spirit is not the Temple. The Spirit could be understood as who binds Church to Christ and one to each other. Given this, a better representation for Spirit might be Mortar. Even this is a poor excuse for the traditional language. Rock, Cornerstone and Temple (Mortar) cannot be a personal God. The whole thing creates more confusion than it clarifies.

…the Triune God is Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child, and Life-giving Womb.

Again the metaphor for the third person of the Trinity has scant or nonexistent biblical support. Here is the text that the draft authors used for support:
“Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb;” (Isaiah 46:3, NRSV)
How does this suggest that the Spirit is like a womb? If we consider the Nicene Creed which states that “the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son,” does that mean the Womb proceeds from the Mother and the Child? Does any of this make sense?

Trinity I: Analogous Language?

The 212th General Assembly (2000) authorized the formation of a task force to study the doctrine of the Trinity. The task force has produced a thirty-five page draft paper entitled, “The Trinity: God’s Love Overflowing.” The Office of Theology and Worship of the PCUSA is looking for feedback on the document.

Although I’m glad, that we are writing papers speaking to the importance of the Trinity. I am also pleased at the praise the paper affords the traditional formulation of the Trinity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

With the witness of Scripture, the ecumenical creeds, and the Reformed confessions and liturgies, we regularly speak of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Presbyterian Church (USA) respects and values this way of speaking of the Triune God, resisting any tendency to discard or diminish it. The language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, etched in Scripture and creed, remains an indispensable anchor for our efforts to speak faithfully of God. If our lifeline to this anchor is frayed or severed, the historic faith of the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church risks being set adrift.
Nevertheless, the authors of the draft paper suggest that all language of the Trinity is merely analogy. I’m not sure that I agree. For early Christians and for centuries afterward, these titles were not mere analogies. For example, to what would the language of “Holy Spirit” be analogous? Moreover, calling God, Father, and Jesus, the Son, speaks of the special relationship between God and Jesus. In the Scriptures, Jesus calls God, his Father, several times. Elsewhere God announces on different occasions that Jesus is “my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” These references are not hidden in parables. They are not simile or metaphor. The writers of Scripture understood them as titles for God and Jesus. Biblical writers would see a difference between, for example, calling Jesus, “the son of God,” and “the cornerstone.” Moreover, the only direct biblical mandate we have for naming the Trinity in worship (Matthew 28:19) is the traditional language -- Jesus tells the disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I will grant that our theological language is limited. Even the traditional language of the Trinity may be abused or misunderstood. I believe the Church should teach, clarify, and warn against the abuse of the language. Instead, the draft authors want to add to the confusion by creating inferior substitutes.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Prudence & the Doctrine of Sin

I must make a confession. I really enjoy reading David Brooks. His amateur anthropology of the American situation is perceptive and engaging. His breezy writing style disarms readers. He is a compelling essayist because he loves his subject matter. That being said, Brooks has his shortcomings. He is better suited to the medium of the essay. His books read like a string of essays, not all of the same quality. He also has a tendency of simplification. He sees modern American life as self-contradictory (for example, he celebrates the rise of the bourgeois bohemians), and then celebrates the synthesis.

In a recent column for the New York Times, Brooks appears at his best and not-so-best. Writing about the continuing American debate between the religious and secular, he lifts up the example of Abraham Lincoln.

“…Lincoln was neither a scoffer nor a guy who could talk directly to God. Instead, he wrestled with faith, longing to be more religious, but never getting there.”
Brooks sees Lincoln as the solution to our cultural divide. We need to acknowledge the great power of religion, yet we shouldn’t be too quick to embrace it.

“Today, a lot of us are stuck in Lincoln's land. We reject the bland relativism of the militant secularists. We reject the smug ignorance of, say, a Robert Kuttner, who recently argued that the culture war is a contest between enlightened reason and dogmatic absolutism. But neither can we share the conviction of the orthodox believers, like the new pope, who find maximum freedom in obedience to eternal truth. We're a little nervous about the perfectionism that often infects evangelical politics, the rush to crash through procedural checks and balances in order to reach the point of maximum moral correctness.”
I agree with Brooks that Lincoln’s devotion to “prudence” would benefit Christians in politics. Pat Robertson’s desire to deny Muslims appointments as judges solely based upon their faith is a wonderful case in point. Some conservatives are concerned that some judges are being filibustered based upon their religious beliefs rather than how they would judge. In contrast, Robertson’s words implies that religious tests are okay as long as they don’t apply to conservative Christians. “Prudence” would dictate that Robertson’s position is blatantly unfair.

However, I disagree with David Brooks that “prudence” is found only outside of orthodox religious belief. Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity, has understood that humanity has been corrupted by sin. As a result, all human activity, including our good works, are tainted. The good intentions of political reformers are not enough. The “rush to crash through procedural checks and balances” is not mandated by the Christian religion. The doctrine of humanity’s sinfulness should give Christians the healthy dose of skepticism that Brooks desires.

Brooks is right to be critical of some evangelical Christians in the public square, but in the process, he has slandered many more.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Reality TV & Christian Disciplines

Apparently the latest incarnation of reality TV has actually made a real world impact. The show was produced in England for the BBC 2 and is called, “The Monastery.” Five men including an atheist who produced pornography joined a Benedictine monastery for forty days. There the five followed the monastery rules including a strict schedule for instruction, study, prayer, reflection and work. They were also obliged to follow the monks’ rules of silence, obedience, and humility. There was resistance at first. Two were reprimanded for leaving the monastery “looking for virgins and cigarettes.” Still, each one experienced change in his life.
By the end, the atheist, Tony Burke, 29, became a believer and gave up his job producing trailers for a sex chat line after having what he described as a "religious experience".

Gary McCormick, 36, the former Ulster Defence Association member, who spent much of his early life in prison, began to overcome his inner demons.

Peter Gruffydd, a retired teacher, regained the faith he had rejected in his youth and Nick Buxton, 37, a Cambridge undergraduate, edged closer to becoming an Anglican priest.

The fifth "novice", 32-year-old Anthony Wright, who works for a London legal publishing company, started to come to terms with his childhood traumas.

At the end of one of these sessions, Mr Burke, his voicing breaking with emotion, confessed his feelings in a video-diary entry. "I didn't want this to happen," he said.

"But something touched me, something spoke to me very deeply. It was a religious experience.

"When I woke up this morning, I didn't believe in this but, as I speak to you now, I do. Whatever it is, I believe in it."
I’m not really surprised that all five experienced something during the experiment. To be emerged in prayer and scripture, including all 150 Psalms each week, for forty days is bound to make an impact. Perhaps, this is a reminder that we should be drawn closer to the community of faith, the Scriptures and prayer.

Actually, I am a bit jealous. To live for forty days focusing on Christ and my life in Him without distraction would be quite a luxury. We live continually with the worries of life, and we need to develop disciplines necessary for lives in motion. Prayer, Scripture, Eucharist, and fellowship become ever more essential because of life‘s inevitable distractions. Sometimes I wonder if all of humanity has a case of spiritual ADD. We need to be reminded over and over about the good news of God in Jesus Christ otherwise we quickly forget.