Wednesday, April 29, 2009

More on Novels

April 27, 2009

As I think further about the three novels of my previous entry, I realize that they all involve really murky and unclear questions of morality. In The Reader, the issues are the least murky. Hannah is illiterate but becomes a Nazi guard. She takes the fall for others because she does not want to reveal her secret. The others let her. In The Old School the issue is plagiarism, but we are not revolted by the act at the time as we are in the light of day. It changes everything, but in some sense could be said to be more honest than dishonest. In Those Who Save Us, Anna gives life and hope to concentration camp prisoners even as she is the consort of a German Officer and even as she refuses to talk about her wartime life with anyone, ever.

Most of the moral dilemmas that I came across are dilemmas precisely because they don’t’ seem to fit the easy certitudes. As St. Paul would have it, the law is indeed a mirror, but often what we do is see in that glass darkly. The insistence on moral clarity in a system of reward and punishment is rarely, if ever, something that could be described as after the model and pattern of Jesus and is also something that gives much of Christianity a bad name. Of course a decision to follow Jesus as Lord will have some effect on all our behaviors as we undergo that fundamental shift or reorientation that is being born anew in and by the Holy Spirit. At the same time, Christian Faith is not about getting us to behave well. Jesus did not, in the words of Mrs. Alexander’s hymn “die to make us good”, --at least not in the sense of bringing about moral rectitude.

I’m reminded of an early chapter in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics on ‘telling the truth’. The Ethics was published from class notes of students in the secret seminary in which he taught during WWII. I recall the situation being set up as to whether telling a German soldier where a Jew was hiding was ‘the truth’. If I’m remembering this correctly, the answer was that this is a time where what appeared to be truthful was actually participating in a greater lie. Moral ambiguity is part and parcel of life. Following Jesus gives us clues and signposts, --the law being perhaps chief among them,-- but not unambiguous, one-size-fits-all answers. How could it be otherwise for a God who made the infinite varieties of creation? We find our way forward with Augustine’s sage advice (not to be trivialized): “When you sin, sin boldly.” Make the best decision you know to make and then act with confidence not in your own rectitude or righteousness but in the assurance of God’s love.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


April 27, 2009

By coincidence (?), I have recently read a series of novels that all deal in one way or another with identity in general through stories of World War II or being Jewish or both. Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader is an extraordinary story of a young man who is seduced as a teenager by a woman who later became a guard in a concentration camp and is tried for her part in atrocities after the war. She ends up taking the blame for others rather than admitting that she is illiterate. The question of how judgment, compassion, understanding and sympathy all go together are front and center in the soy. But there is also the ineffectiveness in life that plagues that young man through his formative experiences with the woman. His identity is formed or malformed from a young age and the rest of his life is pent in the orbit if not the thrall of the woman.

Tobias Wolff wrote The Old School in which the main character is one of a circle of literary types at a New England boarding school in the 60s. He is trying on identities, roles and the like when we discover that he is Jewish and feels like an outsider some of the time. In the end he starts writing his own story but even that is lifted from someone else and he is expelled for plagiarism. Later in life he finds out how he was not alone in living what amounted to a lie and being trapped in an identity shaped through formative experiences.

Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum is a difficult story of remembrance and forgetting in which a professor of German History has a hard time in life precisely because her mother did not tell her the truth of her origins. She was the child of a Jewish doctor later killed in one of the camps after which her mother became the mistress of a German Officer before being liberated by the Americans and marrying her Minnesotan rescuer. I’ve not finished this novel as yet and so don’t know whether or how she will learn the truth about herself. What I do know is that her life is pretty messed up and she really doesn’t have a clue as to why. She is among other things carrying great guilt for being, as she assumes, the child of a German Officer and concentration camp guard.

I don’t have a grand theory of identity from these stories, merely the observation that becoming who we were created to be is a lifelong task and is bound up with personal history. I have liked Jose Ortega y Gasset’s saying from Meditations on Quixote since I first read it: “I am myself plus my circumstance.”

Diocesan Autonomy?

April 27, 2009

A group of bishops and others who profess loyalty to the Episcopal Church have been floating an idea that the Episcopal Church is ‘an interdependent collection of dioceses’ that are in no way subject to the National Church. (See link It is wishful thinking on their part to assume that they are not subject to the constitution and canons of the General Convention. What it appears they are after is the right to sign on to the proposed Anglican Covenant if the Episcopal Church through the agency of the General Convention declines to sign. Why is this not more confusion and obfuscation? Surely if you are loyal to the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion you find such argument troubling at best. It sounds as though loyalty to the Episcopal Church only lasts as long as the Episcopal Church is willing to sacrifice its GLBT members for the mess of pottage that is membership in the Communion rather than the exercise of Christian leadership for the Communion with the Gamaliel principle as the safety clause.

I realize that I am commenting less and less on this kind of stuff as I am more and more tired of it. There is an excellent and helpful blog piece by Ruth Gledhill in The Times Online and you can read it here:


April 27, 2009

Back to considering my recent colleague meeting and a discussion of the merits or otherwise of saying the creeds: I was surprised by how many of our group preferred to omit creeds or rewrite them in some way for use in public worship, finding them to be irredeemably irrelevant to the lives of the people they serve and an offense and affront to true hospitality to strangers.

I am not aware of this having been a problem of that magnitude where I serve for a number of reasons. I have assumed that it is not an option to drop the Nicene Creed from the main Sunday Services and have decided to help people find ways to say them. A class on ‘how can we say the creeds?’ is something I will revise and repeat. In adult enquirer’s classes and elsewhere I teach the creeds as the bare-bones outline of the story of our faith. I make clear that I do not take the creeds as a series of dodgy propositions to which we must give intellectual assent as though we were inhabitants of the intellectual and imaginative world of the third century Christian. I acknowledge that there have been times in the period of the church councils in which it was hoped and intended that the creeds were something to which everyone would give intellectual assent to the exact meaning of the words as intended by the councils that promulgated them. I also explain why such a requirement is both impossible to enforce in worlds in which our imaginative universes are undergoing constant change, and also undesirable for a church that prefers that doctrine be shaped by relationship rather than vice versa (given a choice and recognizing the oversimplification but not falsehood inherent n such a formula).

I believe that hospitality is something discovered in the whole ‘feel’ of a community and that much of our worship would and should be declared inhospitable if immediate accessibility is the goal. I value our connections to the Communion of Saints across the world and down the ages that includes affirmation of the creeds

I liked Dr. Borg’s suggestion that we should use and rotate three or four creeds so as to relativize all of them and minimize their usefulness as ecclesiastic cudgels. Think we are on the way to this with our regular use of the Apostles’ Creed as the ‘baptismal symbol’ of our faith and the Nicene as its ‘sufficient statement’.

To some degree this begs the question as to whether we should be saying the creeds at all. Politically I like them because they serve to make a modern Anglican Covenant (even in ‘the best possible draft’) unnecessary. I’m not so sure that is true for a church that doesn’t recite the creeds in public worship as part of our response to the gospel.


April 24, 2009

Following a conversation about afterlife (see previous entry), Marcus Borg led my colleague group into a new question. “If Christianity isn’t about the afterlife, what’s our product?” he asked. He was quick to make clear that he wasn’t talking so much about things like a place to celebrate transitions in life and great music; or a place to be formed by God in the midst of community and the like. He was really asking what we believe to be our core message. What is it that we are proclaiming? Since then I have been thinking that one way of putting our core message is: “that you may have life and have it abundantly”. The story that bears the message is the story of Jesus (which is told in relation to the stories of Israel and the Church).

Why should anyone align themselves with All Saints’, Atlanta? Because we are a community who are laying claim to the promise of real, fulfilling and abundant life through discovering that our path is the path of Jesus; the path of absolute integrity and right relationship as gifts from God; the path of dying to self that we may know life; the path of discovering that it is in giving that we receive and in service that we find freedom; the path on which we learn that there is no ultimate abundance for us unless there is also abundance for everyone.

There is some danger with any such summary of the message. It is all too easy to sound a bit like ‘a spa for the soul’ or ‘the Church of Abundant Life’ or something associated with the prosperity gospel. Nonetheless, as a ‘core message’, or summary, I think it works pretty well.


April 23, 2009

During a continuing education conversation with Marcus Borg I, along with others, was taken through a number of topics that he felt were important and early questions for many adult Christians and Enquirers. One of the first of these was about the afterlife. Do our parishioners ask or care about the afterlife queried Dr. Borg? How, when and where do we address such concerns?

Answers from this group of rectors of Anglican parishes varied. My impression was that when it came up for most of us it was a pastoral rather than theological question asked in the face of diagnosis or death. ‘Will I see those I love again?’ was cited as being a common question at such times. Most of us also addressed such questions in enquirers’ classes and the like.

My own intuitions ranged from wondering if the question of afterlife is not being asked more than we notice. I am reminded of the old psychoanalyst’s rule of thumb which says ‘if your tendency is to depression your issue is meaning and if your tendency is to anxiety your issue is death. I agree that the question of afterlife comes up as being about relationship as often as not, but also think that it is usually in the background as we deal with loss, impending loss or our fear of loss.

Rather than worrying, as did some in our group, about the linear implications of ‘afterlife’ (i.e. first life, then afterlife’) and preferring words or phrases like ‘other life’ or ‘eternal life which begins now’ and so on, I find myself going to the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane in which he decides to trust God even in the face of death, and learn that the worst thing in life is not death but breaking faith with the source and ground of our being, the love that made us for love. One person in our group found the promise of afterlife to be essential and central to her faith because it was the reality that allowed her to take risks. And that is where I find myself. I have found over and over again that God is trustworthy and honors faith. I know I have a lot to learn about the possibilities of conceiving of time as a sheet or as waves. I suspect that string theory will be theologically fruitful if I can ever get my mind around it. For now, however, I am content to say that I trust that the One who gave life in the first place can give new and restored life even after death and even after three days in the tomb. Part of the import of Easter is that God vindicated Jesus’ fidelity and offered the first fruits of the promise to all of creation.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Cross

Giles Fraser has crated quite a stir among readers of his column in The Guardian last Saturday. He wants to remove a sacrificial understanding of the crucifixion, specifically any notion that the shedding of blood can be a good thing, clearly ruling out any ‘‘subsitutionary’ theory of the atonement. Many of those making comments say unhelpful things such as ‘he hasn’t read the new Testament’ and accuse him of ‘making up a new religion’. It is all pretty low level stuff but makes clear how very difficult it is to offer something both consistent with, and reforming of, the apostolic tradition (which has such notes of consistency and reform built in contra those who would claim that there is some monolithic, once and final, body of doctrine that can be defined as ‘apostolic’ or, more commonly ‘traditional’.) The difficulty seems to lie in those who are invested in the way things are for some reason or other. In the comments after Giles’ article they seem to fall into two camps. One lot wants the faith to be disgusting and irrelevant so that they can continue to reject it and feel confident in doing so. Others seem to worry that if God didn’t in some sense or other ‘plan’ Jesus’ death on the cross then the whole house of cards (and their certainty with it) comes tumbling down.

I once told a friend who is a bishop that I wanted to try and find a ‘non-instrumental’ way of talking about the cross. He asked my why on earth I would want to do such a thing? At the time I didn’t have an immediate answer, but it has to do with understanding God in ways that don’t leave us worshipping violence or caprice and dressing both up as ‘intention’ on God’s part.

I can think of sacrifice as ‘costly self offering’ when understood as something other than creating a ‘scapegoat’ who will bear the consequence of whatever it is that we have done. I believe that he crucifixion is a result of both human sin and Jesus’ absolute integrity in the face of such sin, --his refusal to bless the systems by which we manage our anxiety and fear (our society) with creating victims as scapegoats. What I don’t want to do is bless some notion of God’s plan having to do with Jesus taking a punishment that we rightly deserve or some Anselmic view of the cross as the satisfaction of ‘God’s honor, both of which ideas. I do recognize and affirm that many who talk in terms of a plan are striving to be faithful with the language we have. I just don’t want a metaphysical system built on such a notion (or a philosophy of history now that I think about it).

In the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection we have the unveiling of all that makes for violence and death and the opening to us an alternative in the new life of grace.

The Physiology of Faith

The Physiology of Faith: A Theory of Theological Relativity (Harper, 1979) is by one of the people who presented me for ordination to the diaconate. John W. Dixon Jr. died a few years ago and I have mentioned him and his work before. He was, unusually, a tenured member of two faculties at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: art and religion. He introduced me to his thinking on a class in the religious imagination and then allowed me to read the manuscript for what became this book in an independent study course. I have (you may have noticed) been doing more reading that writing in recent weeks and this is one of the books I have read. I enjoyed discovering how very formative John Dixon was for my own thinking.

For starters, he taught me that the basis of all matter is ‘energy in relation’, and this energy in relation is structured and so given meaning in all kinds of languages and all kinds of ways. While I don’t fully understand how it is that Trinitarian modes of being overcome essential, necessary and potentially destructive dualism, I do get that this presents a critical mode of being that makes sense of Christianity. Some consequences of what his thinking on the meaning of being ‘born again’ found its way into my Easter sermon. His appropriation of relativity theory for theology has, I believe, kept me away from falling off the precipice of relativism on one hand or rejecting Christian faith altogether on the other hand as it is presented, implausibly, as ‘the only way’. I can say that this is the only way for me to have a chance of living with integrity without making my point of view, perspective and experience determinative of all truth, while allowing real commitment and conversion at the same time.

The book is out of print now, but I see that Amazon has access to some used copies. It is not an easy read, but is a great book.

Thursday, April 2, 2009


April 2, 2009

I have recently completed a history of and reflection on Anglo Catholicism in England. W. S. F. Pickering first published Anglo-Catholicism: A Study in Religious Ambiguity in 1989 and it was re-released by James Clarke & Co. last year. The ambiguity of a continuing catholic expression of the faith within the Church of England seems to come from a fundamental problem with the nature of authority within Anglicanism. Pickering spends some time trying to distinguish Anglo Catholics from Tractarians and other sub-sects of the movement but basically does a decent job of summarizing the roots of the movement in the work of Newman, Pusey and Keble in the Nineteenth Century. There is so much that we take for granted today that was the subject of serious battles in days past: Eucharistic vestments, candles on altars, the reserved sacrament, seasonal colors and so on. These things served to deepen worship for many but they grew from a theological and ecclesial outlook that really liked the authority expressed in the Roman Church even if there were many who did not find converting to Rome to be attractive. It is that view of authority that seems to be at the root of Pickering’s ‘ambiguity’. It is difficult for an ordered church founded on intellectual assent to doctrinal propositions to exist within a communion that has, for the most part, judged relationship a prior to doctrine in many important ways. And so there is a ‘kicking against the goads’ feel to the Catholic movement within the C of E as described by Pickering. After reading his book, I believe that attempts to win over the Church to a catholic perspective is doomed to fail and that those so inclined would do well to join Tony Blair, Newt Gingrich and others who have converted to Rome. Along with Archbishop Akinola and those who earnestly believe as he does, I am convinced that they are seeking to define as ‘Anglican’ something that is inimical to the Spirit and History of the Communion.