Monday, May 31, 2010

The Pentecost Letter

May 31, 2010

The Archbishop of Canterbury has written a Pentecost Letter in which he proposes that representatives of various (unnamed) provinces who have not begun or continued to observe the ‘moratoria’ (against the consecration of (openly) gay or lesbian bishops, the blessing of same-sex unions or interference by one province in the governance of another) with draw from various councils. I fail to see how this ‘moves the ball forward’ and am glad I do not have his job.

Among the marks of Pentecost seems to be the breaking of the boundaries of race, language and religion through a radically new and Spirited sense of what it is to be human. The letter gives me the sense of a thoughtful Christian doing his best with a tricky situation more than giving me a powerful sense of the redemptive and freeing reality of Good News. I still wish that Archbishop Williams would lead from belief about the underlying issues rather than trying to manage disagreement through wordy ecclesiology. I’m not arguing for less intellectual rigor. I do wish it was being applied to our underlying differences.

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

Memorial Day
May 31, 2010

Early in the first Clinton Administration when senior military officers were resisting the expressed desires of their Commander-in-Chief (for reasons they considered entirely proper) regarding gays in the military I had an unusual experience. The policy known as ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ was on the table but not yet passed by congress and I was running my usual series of enquirers’ classes which culminated in a retreat. On the retreat I was able to introduce two people who had met previously but had no reason to know each others stories. One was a colonel in the air force who was to be responsible for overseeing the implementation of any policy that came out of the debate. He did not like anything much that made it possible for homosexual men and women to serve, but was more concerned about how he was going to be fair to all parties. He raised many of the same concerns that are being raised about implementation today: housing policy, bathrooms and the like. He was determined to do a good job in spite of his misgivings. The other was a Captain in naval Intelligence who had admitted during a routine review of her security clearance that she had entered into a relationship with another woman and had been discharged from the Navy within something like a week of her interview. All this was going on during the eight or nine weeks of those classes. The Colonel credits the former Captain with helping him come to terms with the work he had to do and which he began to conceive as ministry.

I recently received an email from a friend who was taking issue with a posting from March 6 in which I suggested that the published opinions of Retired U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, Merrill A. McPeak qualified him as a ‘dinosaur’. He took issue with me on two points relevant to the current debate in congress. He read my comment in reference to McPeak about a “tired old unsubstantiated point about ‘unit cohesion’ on the battlefield” as belittling. My correspondent pointed out to me that I had not been in a battlefront unit and suggested that many in the military and in wider society are “naturally very uncomfortable in the intimate proximity of a military in the field with those that they fear and believe look at them with other than disinterest”. As a letter in the New York Times from yesterday points out, there has been little or no problem integrating open gay and lesbian service members in the forces of Israel, Great Britain or Australia. I have no doubt that the same services who have done such a fine job of integrating white and black members into cohesive units can do a similar job when they get their minds around the reality that the enemy here is prejudice not homosexuality.

My correspondent’s second point was my “apparent willingness, encouragement even, to place upon our soldiers, already under heavy stress (think PTSD) and daily risking their lives—to protect our freedoms, additional stress…” He says “perhaps you could find a more appropriate target to serve as an environment to attempt bringing about forced social change.” He is concerned about being forced into change by the government and ‘social engineering’ suggesting that if such change is good it will come about gradually in society. He recognizes that such a view poses a problem of an “imposition upon some service members who happen to be homosexual”.

I am unmoved by the ‘not during wartime’ argument (while I am concerned for the health and safety of our troops). I’m quite sure that clever Generals can come up with an implementation plan that does not put front line troops in danger from each other. I’m also aware from published reports that an unusual number of those who have been discharged under the current policy are Arabic translators and that their loss from service poses a wartime challenge of serious understaffing in a critical area. I do not think of this as ‘forced social change’ as much as I see it as addressing a fundamental weakness in our armed forces in today’s world. Prejudice, enshrined in law or policy, always weakens a country. Look at the governmental chaos in Nigeria, while an Anglican Primate urges that the country leave the UN because of its ‘support of homosexuality’. My correspondent’s arguments are fine if we are still unsure about whether or not gay and lesbian people should be objects of prejudice, and outdated and morally wrong if we believe that they should not be asked to bear an “imposition” for the sake of a capable and society shaping institution that would prefer not to have to juggle one more challenging task at the moment. I am glad that congress appears to recognize this tension while giving military leaders considerable respect and leeway in the implementation of a change in official policy.

On this day I join with all those who honor and pray for men and women who have given their lives in the service of the freedoms that we enjoy in this country and pray that those freedoms and their attendant privileges and responsibilities may be extended to all the people of this land as a beacon of hope for others.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

What follows is an 'open letter' to our friend The Rev'd. Emmanuel Bwatta MA, Principal of the Bible College of the Diocese of Western Tanganyika in Kusulu, Tanzania encouraging the development of an indigenous African theological tradition that is widely accessible through written transmission.

Dear Emmanuel,

I enjoyed reading your MA thesis on Prophets and the Social-Po0litical Welfare of Israel: Today’s Challenge to the Churches of Tanzania. You helped me understand some of what I have witnessed in my visits to you. I have noticed and commented on the reality that your Bishops live at a very different material level than the vast majority of their clergy. I had not seen this through the lens of ‘social class’ but am persuaded by your thesis that class is a useful lens for thinking about the challenges of your country.

We have talked frequently about the need to develop an indigenous theological tradition throughout Africa and the challenge that is posed to that project when so many of your people who are privileged to enjoy a Western Education end up becoming Bishops or otherwise enjoying the benefits of the class system that you have identified. It seems to me that an authentic tradition will do the kind of work that you have done in looking at the prophetic tradition, looking at your own country and looking at the insights of liberation theologies as they have developed elsewhere. This kind of work can become that ‘tradition’ that we long for if people like you will keep teaching, but also keep writing so that your work can be shared and disseminated more widely than strictly oral tradition allows.

I hope that we can continue our personal friendship and institutional partnership between this parish and The Bible College of which you are principal in ways that allow the flowering of this tradition for DWT, for Tanzania, for East Africa and for the Continent as a whole. Let’s keep talking about how we can help make that happen even as you return to your growing family and the day to day challenges of funding and managing your school.

In Christ,


Sunday, May 23, 2010

High School Graduation

May 23, 2010

Attending graduation ceremonies from a large public high school has been an interesting experience for me as a parent. First and foremost I find myself filled with pride for my son, Alexander, who has done extremely well and will be heading to the University of Chicago. That said there were a number of things that were odd to my sensibilities.

First we had ‘pre-commencement exercises’. These took place in a Methodist Church on the campus of Emory University. It was referred to by the speaker as a ‘hall’, even as he acknowledged that many such observances would be called a Baccalaureate Service and would be an essentially religious observance with hymns and prayers. That speaker was the University President, James Wagner. His address was unusually substantial for such an occasion. He spoke of ‘the practices of community’ which included such things as honest conversation, being connected and giving for others. He resorted to the use of scripture only once, but for me this served to show how difficult it is to develop a genuine ethic without the idea of God or something that resembles or functions as God in the argument. Alexander is sure that God is unnecessary for such things as humanity or community or our responsibility to one another. I’m not sure whether he thinks such notions are somehow ‘innate’ to humans, but at any rate ethics in such a world seem limited primarily to utilitarianism. I remember reading The Mountain People by Colin M. Turnbull in an introductory course in philosophy as an undergraduate. While the book was somewhat controversial, Turnbull portrayed the breakdown of a people called the Ik from Northern Uganda when their way of life was essentially destroyed. He showed how many of the traits that we like to think of as ‘human’ go out of the window pretty quickly under really extreme and apparently permanent conditions. Certainly the breakdown of any kind of value to ‘community’ came fast and furious for these people.

At the graduation itself I was struck by how well Ms. Donovan, who had been Alexander’s advisor, read the names of more than three hundred students with care and aplomb. I don’t know how many ethnic origins were represented, but it was a truly international group and many of the names were quite challenging for an Anglo. I was quite moved by that reality. I was also struck by the fact that Alexander was wearing a tassel on his shoulders that proclaimed ‘work readinesses. While I don’t’ know what was required to achieve this recognition, I was encouraged anyway. Could a summer job be a possibility? Less encouraging was my unscientific observation that only about a third of the class was sporting a sign of such accomplishment. Third, while I realize that not everyone who begins Druid Hills High School graduates, and while I know that for some this will be the major academic accomplishment of their lives I was strangely revolted and appalled at the whooping and shouting and carrying on of some of the students and their supporters in the Civic Center. This seemed to transcend race and national origin to some extent, but it didn’t seem in keeping with the occasion. Last, I have a friend who believes that there is really only one ‘
Alma Mater’, that it is used everywhere and is universally dreadful. Certainly there was no one on the stage last Friday who seemed remotely enthusiastic about singing it including leading faculty, administrators and students. Thank God (or whomever) for the talents of the Kennesaw Brass Quintet who carried the thing.

The student speeches were, for the most part a highlight. I particularly liked the one by the two salutatorians who with real wit and substance urged us not to be quick to judge others as we might miss some important gifts. It was a good message for the crowd and the occasion. They didn’t put it this way but they came close to saying that prejudice is when we judge a person and discernment is when we judge behavior. Good thoughts for life.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Bible tells me so

May 21, 2010

Martin Doblmeier is president and founder of Journey Films based in Alexandria, Virginia who in 2006 produced a documentary for PBS on Bonhoeffer. Along the way he interviewed Inge Karding, a former student of Bonheoffer in Berlin. She remembers Bonhoeffer saying that “when you read the Bible, you must think that here and now God is speaking with me…he taught us that we had to read the Bible as it was directed at us, as the word of God directly to us. Not something general, not something generally applicable, but rather a personal relationship to us.” (Metaxas, Bonhoeffer p.128f.) In 1936, in a letter to his brother-in-law Bonhoeffer wrote “I believe that the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions, and that we need only to ask repeatedly and a little humbly, in order to receive the answer…in the Bible, God speaks to us…” (p.136)

Bonhoeffer’s Barthian interest in the Bible was an interest in the Word revealed in and through the Bible. I agree with him about the Bible but would modify the emphasis slightly to make sure that we remember that the point is the revealed Word or what Bonhoeffer elsewhere makes clear is relationship with God in Christ. In his thesis of 1929, Act and Being Bonhoeffer named something that was to be one thematic strand of his theology: “God is free not from human beings but for them. Christ is the word of God’s freedom.” While the story of faith contained in the Bible is the preeminent revelation of God’s love, the Word is also present in the sacraments, in creation, made incarnate not only in Jesus but in our own discovery of grace as we move towards right relationship.

It is not so much that “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so” but more “I know that Jesus loves me as I meet the living Word in the whole story of canonical scripture.” Those who would use the Bible as a talisman or attempt to stem the tide of cultural shifts with all of their scientific, philosophical and artistic manifestations by insisting on some manifestations of culture in the stories of scripture are simply wrong. Bonhoeffer and Barth before him would be appalled at such distortions of the Word.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Bonhoeffer in America

May 20, 2010

Eric Metaxas has written the first major biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer since that of Bonhoeffer’s friend, Eberhard Bethge, more than forty years ago. It is called Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. (Thomas Nelson, 2010) I wrote my undergraduate thesis on this man and both his life and theology have intrigued me ever since. I keep returning to the story of someone who saw and felt what was happening in Germany in general and in the German Church in particular such that he compared himself to the prophet Jeremiah and suffered imprisonment and death for his fidelity. I keep returning to the story of someone for whom God was real, but who rejected fundamentalism along with the particularly American forms of liberalism that he encountered while yearning for what he called a kind of “religionless Christianity”.

He came to Union Seminary near Columbia University in New York City in 1930 at the height of American liberalism and was appalled. John Rockefeller had just built Riverside Church as a pulpit for Harry Emerson Fosdick who also taught preaching at Union. Fosdick’s curriculum placed topics like ‘the forgiveness of sins’ and ‘the cross’ in the general, and by implication not terribly important, category of “traditional themes” (p.106). Bonhoeffer learned much about community while at Union and much about both music and holding the faith apart from the mainstream through what he called ‘negro religion’ traveling through the South in search of greater understanding of this particularly affective and hopeful expression of the faith. Both were to play an important role in the way his life was to unfold. But he was appalled by the theology, or rather lack of theology that he encountered. Metaxas cites a letter to Max Diestel in which Bonhoeffer writes

“There is no theology here…They talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria. The students…are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about…They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level” (p.101).

Elsewhere in a reflection on The Enlightened American he remarked that the sermon has been reduced to “parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events.” He admired the social conscience that was part of genuine community, but feared for Christianity that did not preach a vigorous gospel of sin, repentance, salvation and the cross.

I doubt that Bonhoeffer would have the same experience of Union Seminary today. We will have a glimpse of today’s theology when Serene Jones, the President of union and a wonderful speaker offers our Woodall Lecture this autumn. She has spent much of her career holding together the insights of Calvinism and the insights of feminism which even in the early 1980s were considered strange bedfellows. Her recent work considers theological resources for those who have suffered trauma. I wonder what he would say about the content of preaching at All Saints’ and believe that he would hear the gospel proclaimed with vigor from a clear consistent theological (what he calls ‘dogmatic’) foundation. But he would hear it in the midst of a people who, while shaped by and towards a desire for righteousness (diakosoune), and with an appreciation for the continuing revelation of divine will in and through community, might not always articulate the Christian gospel of forgiveness and grace through the cross and resurrection with great confidence. Does that sound right? And is it a problem?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Thoughts on attending a Seminary Graduation

May 15, 2010

Yesterday I attended the graduation and commencement ceremonies of St. Luke’s Seminary at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. We had a small representation form All Saints’ in support of Emmanuel Bwatta, our friend who is the principal of the Bible College of the Diocese of Western Tanganyika in Kusulu. He received a Master of Arts degree and was awarded the prize for excellence in the study of Hebrew. I’m looking forward to reading his thesis on “Prophets and the Social-Political Welfare of Israel: Today’s Challenge to the Churches of Tanzania.”

Fourteen people received the Master of Divinity Degree, thirteen of whom are Episcopalians and (presumably) headed toward ordination in the eleven dioceses represented. The preacher was Barbara Crafton (who has led our women’s and all parish retreats in recent years, and who herself received an honorary doctorate). She mentioned the phenomenon of ‘disappearing curacies’ and I wondered how many of these graduates were going to have positions and places in which to serve in the coming months.

I wonder what the future holds for the provision of ministry as clergy in particular and church staffs in general become ever more expensive. The General Convention does a good thing requiring some level of health and pension benefits for all staff and sets the bar at people who work twenty hours per week. That will increase our costs in a year or two by an amount that is roughly the cost of the position we are giving up by not hiring a person dedicated to Christian Social Ministries in the near term. Even as we lose positions in this climate, so those positions become ever more expensive to fill. Something has to change and I’m not sure what that will be. What I know is this: the ministry of the gospel is not dependent on handsomely paid positions in the institutions of the church. I also know that those positions will be much easer to fund if the people who are graduating from seminary have fire in the belly and a passion for proclaiming good news rather than solely having really well thought out opinions on the use of incense in worship. I am not intending to take a swipe at theological education which I value, but am suggesting that the education needs to be focused more on the gospel and less on the institutional forms that it takes. Could it be that this is why denominational seminaries of every stripe are struggling?

As to the ceremony itself, it was a joy to see people happy and celebrating surrounded by friends and family who have supported the journey. It was fun to connect with old friends from various parts of the church. One of my pet peeves is any attempt to use the ‘large occasion’ to introduce new music or liturgical innovation to a congregation who are not there for that. We had a couple of spectacularly unfortunate examples. Shouldn’t our worship on such an occasion be as inclusive and celebratory as possible? Also, while I was proud of our bishop who is serving as Chancellor of the University and who clearly knew what he was doing, if we are going to use schools Latin in the awarding of degrees after the custom of the ancient Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, then some of the other speakers could use some guidance in pronouncing the Latin. It really shouldn’t sound like we imagine a modern Italian might do it! The school did a good job of providing translations, but I wonder if it had much to do with the mountains of Tennessee in the first place.

The Omega Point

May 15, 2010

Don DeLillo’s recent novel called Point Omega (Scribner, 2010) has sent me back to the work of Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit and biologist who died in New York City in the 1950s. I was introduced to his work when I was a teenager by an Anglican priest who taught biology along with theology. De Chardin developed a theory of the evolution of people, consciousness and matter which he saw as moving towards a kind of perfect relation that he called the ‘omega point’. It is over simplifying things to say that he thought of the omega point as God but he used language like ‘supreme consciousness’ as the goal and direction of the evolution of all life.

DeLillo’s short novel takes hold of the omega point idea almost making it a place within the universe (implied by the name ‘Point Omega’). The question that I was left with early on and again after reading the novel is whether there is really any place for ethics in a universe that is moving inexorably toward its end or purpose. Should we care that a character goes missing in the desert or is that just part and parcel of life working itself out. The novel almost suggests that the process is a kind of Hegelian movement of thesis-antithesis –synthesis. A man involved in the architecture of the first gulf war escapes (in a sense) to a desert which itself becomes a place of violence (perhaps) as he more or less wastes away. It is not even clear that love is a real part of ultimate consciousness in DeLillo’s vision of ultimate consciousness.

This kind of phenomenology seems to have more in common with certain kinds of Buddhist teaching than with the story of Jesus. I enjoyed the book in many ways but am still wondering what to make of it. Has anyone else read it and could you comment?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Participatory Exegesis

May 9, 2010

I met with my interdenominational colleague group this week. We gather once or twice a year to discuss theology, usually having read a biblical text, something ancient and something contemporary. This time it was the Psalms, The Letter to Marcellinus by Athanasius, and Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation by Daniel Levering. I went with little clue about what issue Levering was addressing and wondering whether that emperor had any clothes. I found myself thinking that in the end he was arguing for inductive bible study for Roman Catholics. He clearly wanted bible study to be more than reading solely through the lens of the historical critical methods that most of us were taught but that none of us were limited by or to.

Our conversation however did lead us to the question of how our ‘world view’ affects biblical exegesis. Or put another way, we wondered about our fundamental assumptions about theology and history and how they affected our reading of scripture. If we say ‘Jesus is Lord’, do we mean something for all people and all of history? Or is the notion that God has established a single claim for all people for all time a reflection of the limited world view of the Roman Empire (as I suspect)? Is it the greater hubris to claim that Christianity is the ultimate way and that those of other faiths will need to get with the program, perhaps after they die; or is the hubris greater to say that a god who would condemn large swaths of the planet with different religious and cultural assumptions than our own is a god not worthy of worship? Is there a way to develop some kind of theological theory of relativity without resorting to relativism (‘my truth’ and ‘your truth’)?

We didn’t solve these mysteries, but once again ran up against the kinds of fault lines that are divisive for Christians. We see the conflict being played out in many ways in most mainline or old line denominations and between the more ‘liberal views’ and the more ‘conservative views’. Perhaps we are not so much an interdenominational colleague group as an interfaith one.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Angry Men

May 3, 2010

I read an article somewhere suggesting that part of the problem with much of the negativity in Washington (currently represented by the tea party movement and Mitch McConnell’s inability to find anything he likes in any proposal from Democrats, but from which no party is immune) is that it is un-American. The article suggested that in a democracy, some respect must be given to majority desires in the assurance that there will be another election in due course where the polis may express their preferences. The author pointed out that President Obama ran for office in part on a platform of healthcare reform, was elected by a large majority at the head of a party with majorities in both houses of congress. He then set about doing what he said he would do with endless and public conversation, televised debate, open process and on and on. At what point do those who resist move on? The refusal to accept democracy at work is what is being suggested is un-American.

Related to that, a friend sent me an article from the San Francisco Sentinel by Tim Wise (25 April 2010) called Imagine if the Tea Party was Black.

Here are just a few quotes from the article:

“Imagine that hundreds of black protestors were to descend on Washington DC and Northern Virginia…armed with AK-47s, assorted handguns and ammunition …Would these black protestors with guns be seen as brave defenders of the Second Amendment, or would they be viewed by most whites as a danger to the republic?”

“Imagine that white members of congress, while walking to work, were surrounded by thousands of angry black people, one of whom proceeded to spit on one of the congressmen for not voting the way the black protestors desired?...that is what white Tea Party protestors did recently in Washington.”

“Imagine that a rap artist were to say in reference to a white president: ‘He’s a piece of shit and I told him to suck on my machine gun.”…that’s what rocker Ted Nugent said recently about President Obama.”

Is this really legitimate protest when engaged in by people who have generally seen themselves as ‘those in power’ when ‘outsiders’ would be viewed as threatening and probably criminal? And does any of this suggest that all is well with the State of the Union?

The sea change that has been going on for years and has made possible (at least for now) a black President is being predictably resisted by those who feel some sense of loss, often without really knowing what that is. We have seen the same behavior in the church over the ordination of women and, more recently, the reaching of a tipping point in support of gay and lesbians in the church. The noise and bad behavior of those who feel themselves displaced is just plain ugly. I am not convinced that any of these changes are secure as yet but I am convinced that they are gospel, consistent with the good news of Christ and consistent with Peter’s vision at Joppa of nothing and no one God has made being declared profane. With any such change sabotage and resistance is inevitable. This is the time to stay the course.