Who Is My Neighbor?

Posted: August 8th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Who Is My Neighbor?

But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29)

I can’t claim to have really followed the Chick-Fil-A debacle. I’m not the sort who pays a lot of attention to boycotts or their opposite. And, given that much of my family has celiac disease, we don’t really frequent any sort of fast food establishment. Nevertheless, I have a twitter account and I read quite a few blogs, so I naturally heard some of the back and forth. Throughout it all the expert in the Jewish law’s question to Jesus has been running through my mind. Clearly, from his earlier answer, the man understood that Jesus was teaching that we could only love God to the extent that we are willing to love our neighbor as ourselves. It wasn’t a love God first and then as a secondary command love others. Rather, it was one command intertwined and inseparable.

Almost everyone, Christian or not, has heard about Jesus’ parable in response. We even have “Good Samaritan” laws named after it. And over the years, I’ve heard a lot of discussion about that parable. Much of it has been good and highlighted important aspects about human interactions. But I think most of what I’ve heard over the years has missed one of the key aspects of the parable.

As a response to the lawyer’s question, the parable of the Good Samaritan reads to me like a sharp rebuke. Jesus is telling the lawyer that he’s asking the wrong question for the wrong reasons. When we ask, “Who is my neighbor?” we are all in truth asking who we don’t have to love. And we are doing so by trying to group people into categories. And in response to that question, Jesus tells a story of a man who encounters a stranger who needs him — a stranger who in other circumstances probably would have despised and avoided the Samaritan — and who without hesitation or condition meets the needs of that stranger.

Whenever we ask “Who is my neighbor?” we have already stepped away from the way of life onto the way of death. The question itself indicates we want the escape clause. We want to know who we are allowed to hate. Oh, we dress it up and rationalize it in all sorts of ways; some of them are even pretty convincing.

Jesus will have none of it, though.

So who are really trying to fool? Ourselves? Are we simply attempting to justify our refusal to follow Jesus, the one we often falsely call “Lord“?

This incident is just one of many, of course. We see it every time Christians other Muslims. (Has anyone ever gotten one of those fear-mongering emails about Muslims trying to turn America into an Islamic state under sharia law from anyone other than a Christian?) We see it when a white church refuses to allow the scheduled wedding of a black couple on its premises. And we see it in this most recent dust-up, which has never really been about fast food chicken nuggets and sandwiches.

Jesus tells us in the parable the question we should instead be asking:

Who will be my neighbor today?

Out of those I know, those I will meet, or the strangers whose paths will cross mine, who will need me today? Who can I serve? Who can I help, even if only by my presence and support? Who will I be given the opportunity to love today?

Because ultimately it’s not about groups. It’s not about categories. It’s not even about generic statements that we should somehow abstractly love everyone (though that’s better than abstractly hating them, I suppose). Instead it’s about loving the individual human beings, each beloved by God, who need our love today. And the moment we ask who we have to love and who we don’t, we’ve turned our backs on Jesus. It’s really as simple and as hard as that.

And please don’t misunderstand me. I understand how hard it is. There are individuals I struggle not to hate, much less love. And there are groups (like the modern nativistic, racist GOP element) I want to other as a group, to make into a group I’m excused from loving. Like everyone else, I want to love those who love me and hate those who hate me. Christianity is hard. If anyone ever told you it was easy, they lied. But in the long run, it’s much harder, or at least more destructive, to hate.

Richard Beck has a follow-up to an earlier post in which evidence seems to show that evangelicalism is actually structured to allowed people to perceive themselves as more loving when in reality, even on a self-assessment, according to specific criteria members of that group actually aren’t more loving at all.

Fred Rogers really had it right, I think. Won’t you be my neighbor?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8w9xk4hUKoQ

Parallels Between Calvinism and Islam

Posted: August 1st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’ve been reflecting recently on the deep influence Islam had on the Renaissance. Much of the West’s recovery of classical texts, it’s numbering system, and a significant portion of what became the scientific method flowed into the Renaissance from Islamic sources and influences. And as I reflected on those influences, it struck me that medieval Islam had a significant impact on the Protestant reformation and that influence is most evident in Calvinism.

Hopefully my point won’t be misunderstood. I’m well aware of John Calvin’s publicly expressed opinion on Islam. (At one point, I believe he called it one of the two horns of the antichrist with the other being the Roman Catholic Church.) I don’t mean direct, conscious influence. Rather, Islam had for centuries helped shape the culture within which Calvin was born and lived and which formed the lens through which he perceived the world, but it was not an overt influence.  Culture tends to operate below the conscious level and the forces which shape culture are many and varied. But when I look at the church Calvin founded, I see a number of strands influenced by Islam.

First, the Reformers in general and Calvin specifically, made “the book” the foundation and core of their faith in a way that had never been true in Christianity. Christians never traditionally saw themselves as people of the book. That’s actually a phrase from within Islam describing Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Rather Christians had always been the people of the living Lord, the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth. The Holy Scriptures, and the Gospels in particular, were always important in Christianity, but they were never at the center of our faith in the way Torah is in Judaism or the Qur’an in Islam.

And then I’m struck by Calvin’s fierce iconoclasm. Iconoclasm had risen within the Roman Empire in the eighth century and its rise at that point in time within Christianity is almost certainly connected to the influence of Islam on the emperor and other leading figures of the state. That led to a period of intense persecution that was ultimately ended only by the seventh ecumenical council condemning iconoclasm as heresy. That event is still celebrated today in the feast of the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” on the first Sunday of Great Lent and the matter was largely settled within Christianity until Calvin revived it. Again, as in the eighth century, the influence of Islam, even on a cultural or subconscious level, can be seen.

However, the most telling influence to me lies in the sort of God Calvin ultimately described. John Calvin emphasized the sovereign nature of God over creation. His belief in predestination accords more closely with the Islamic concept of preordainment than anything found within mainstream Christian tradition. For Calvin, as for Muslims, everything that happens has been preordained by God. And that everything is truly all-encompassing, covering good and evil alike. If an army pillages a town, that was ordained by God. If a drought leaves a country in famine, that was ordained by God. A hurricane striking a city inflicting death, loss, and pain was ordained by God. We can see Calvin’s influence today when Christians point to something horrible and describe it as an act of God. And that aspect of his theology shares much more in common with Islam than Christianity.

Of course, Calvinism is also different from Islam on many levels. My point is not that it’s simply some form of Christianized Islam. Rather, I see threads connecting elements within Calvinism (and spreading from there to a wide swath of Protestant Christianity) to the cultural influence medieval Islam had on the European culture that formed and shaped John Calvin. None of us ever stand in a vacuum free from outside influence and most of the time it’s even hard to see those forces that have shaped and formed us. And Calvinism along with the other Christian strands it in turn influenced, seems to have been shaped in part by Islam.


Reflections on Resurrection 1

Posted: October 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Throughout this blog and in my comments elsewhere, I often focus on resurrection. In many ways, it is the Christian teaching of resurrection which drew me deeper into this faith and it is certainly one of the linchpins that keeps me in it. I can say with certainty that if I did not believe in Christ’s Resurrection and that it was the first fruit of our own resurrection, then Christianity would hold no interest for me. As Paul writes, if Christ is not risen then we are of all men the most pitiable.

However, there seems to be a great deal of confusion today, even among Christians, about Resurrection. Since it dawns on me that it is not possible to really understand some of the things I write without understanding what is wrapped up in that one word, I thought it might be wise to write a short series outlining my perspective on the subject. I’ll write, as I normally do, from a personal perspective. If you’re more interested in a comprehensive academic treatment of Christ’s Resurrection, I would recommend N.T. Wright’s big book, The Resurrection of the Son of God. That sort of exhaustive treatment is not my goal.

When pressed, I normally describe my background and childhood formation as pluralistic. In order to understand what is behind some of the things I plan to write in this series, I think I need to explain what I mean when I use that term. First, I need to say that my childhood was not shaped within the context of a single non-Christian religion nor was it particularly non-theistic or atheistic — though there were certainly aspects of a number of different religions and non-theistic or loosely theistic influences. However, my childhood, whatever else it may have been, was not anti-Christian at all.

In fact, while I’m not sure anyone growing up in the American South in the 70s could avoid exposure to Christianity, my experience of it was, while pretty varied, largely positive. I was baptized in a Baptist Church at a pretty young age. At different times I attended both Episcopal and Catholic schools. (I also attended a bunch of different public schools, a nonsectarian private school, and was even home-schooled for a few months in Mississippi when my mother discovered the local schools were still segregated.) Over the course of my childhood, I also experienced a wide array of other Christian traditions and denominations. Ironically, though not raised strictly Christian, I probably encountered more of the diversity which constitutes Christianity in America than most of my peers.

I could, if I wanted, frame a relatively typical Baptist conversion narrative. I don’t do so because that does not truthfully capture the reality of my experience. Yes, my encounters with and scattered experiences within a Christian context were authentic (whatever that means), but they were hardly my only spiritual influence. Moreover, my rejection of what I understood about and experienced from Christianity as a sixteen year old teen parent was just as authentic as any of my earlier experience. These were markers on my journey of conversion, but I don’t consider myself to have finally converted to Christian faith and practice until my early thirties when I unexpectedly reached a point where that label described something central to my identity.

Christianity, though, was just one aspect out of many in my formation. My family and thus our extended circle of family friends includes many involved in the scientific and academic community. Although, of the many things I’ve been or practiced, I never felt any pull toward atheism or even classical enlightenment-style deism, that perspective and manner of approaching life and reality has certainly been a part of my formation. I don’t find it threatening. I also do not find it antithetical to belief. I do find that this part of who I am is the part that’s mostly likely to make the determination that a particular religion (or one of the many different Christian Gods proclaimed today) is not worth believing or practicing, and its deity not worth worshiping.

The other most significant and formative spiritual perspective from my childhood was Hinduism. Why Hinduism? The simplest answer is that we had Indian friends and my mother was at least dabbling in it. It was just part of the air I breathed as a child, as present to me as was Christianity. Now, it’s important to recognize that the term itself is a broad label encompassing virtually any religious practice rooted in the perspective found in the ancient Vedic texts. It’s not really a single religion in the sense of a single set of beliefs and practices, though there are a number of consistent underlying perspectives on the nature of reality. Rather, there are many gurus, past and present, who teach different things.

I never really followed a guru. I’m not sure why, exactly. I just didn’t. I did spend some of my late preteen and early teen years actively practicing transcendental meditation, which does have a particular guru, but I never formally engaged it. I just practiced privately using a book as a guide. Beyond that, I explored various published writings including, of course, the Bhagavad Gita.

Hinduism, however, was not the only other part of my childhood spiritual formation. I don’t remember ever hearing the term New Age in the seventies. However, many of the things lumped under that heading in the bookstore today were part of my experience. My parents ran a small press bookstore in Houston for a few years and that gave me easy access to books on numerology, runes, palmistry, astrology, tarot, and many related topics. Even before then, I remember sitting with my mother when I was as young as six or seven as she brought out her tarot deck and did readings. I also clearly remember participating in a past life regression workshop my parents hosted for a friend when I was eleven or twelve. I was captivated by the modern myths of Atlantis. I also recall some interaction with Wiccan and neopagan systems of belief. (In my twenties I also had a number of Wiccan friends.)

After being rejected by and in turn rejecting the Christian aspect of my formation, I tended to operate from a basic Hindu perspective of reality, but I explored a number of different options. I read a fair amount of the Qur’an at one point, but Islam never held any appeal to me. We had had some Jewish family friends growing up and there were aspects of modern Judaism that did appeal to me, but it’s not a direction in which I was particularly drawn. I did explore Buddhism and Taoism, but at the time they didn’t really appeal to me either. (Ironically, I find some elements of both more compelling now after being significantly shaped by Christian faith and practice than I did at the time. If I was going to be anything else other than Christian today, it would probably be one of those two.) I looked a bit at Wicca and neopaganism, but they were just too modern for me, if that makes sense. I have a deep sense of history. You may have noticed that in some of my writings.

For most of my twenties, I settled into a sort of lackadaisical Hindu belief and practice. I didn’t seek a guru. I didn’t actually attend anything. But those were the beliefs about reality I privately held and, to the extent I practiced anything, I practiced Hindu meditation. I also continued to privately practice tarot, but I abandoned most of the other practices in which I had dabbled over the course of my childhood.

Why does this matter for this series? It’s really pretty simple. When we discuss Resurrection and the nature of the human being, a lot of people today — including many Christians — seem to believe something more like the other perspectives in my spiritual formation than anything identifiably Christian. And it seems to me that many people don’t even realize that’s the case. Now, I’m hardly anything approaching a guru when it comes to Hinduism or any other religion. In fact, after the last fifteen years during which I have consciously and deliberately embraced and explored Christian belief and practice, I’m pretty certain I know more about Christianity than I do any other belief system. I absorbed a lot from those other systems and explored them all to some extent, but never with the commitment or to the depth that I have Christianity. Nevertheless, I am conscious of these other perspectives on reality and see their influence (or the influence of some of their cousins) in American Christianity in ways that many, perhaps, do not. And it seems to me that the central point of dissonance lies in the all-important Christian proclamation of resurrection.

I’ll continue this series next week, but if anyone is reading this over the weekend and is willing to share, what thoughts come to your mind when you hear resurrection?


Original Sin 26 – So how did this idea come to dominate in the West?

Posted: March 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 26 – So how did this idea come to dominate in the West?

The question of how the idea of original sin as inherited guilt (along with other distinct differences) rose to dominance in the Western Christian world is actually a pretty interesting historical question. In order to begin to understand it, one has to step back into the ancient world within which Christianity formed and took root. For good reason, we tend to associate Christianity with the rise of Western civilization. The two are often so deeply intertwined in our minds, that we tend to unconsciously assume that Christianity is a Western religion.

But it’s not. And the world of those first centuries was a very different one. In that world, what we call the West was the frontier of the Roman Empire. Within the context of Christianity, only one Apostolic See was established — the one in Rome. In the East, by way of contrast, there were four Apostolic sees or patriarchates: Jerusalem (the oldest), Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople. (According to tradition it’s said that the Apostle Andrew founded the church that eventually became the See of Constantinople, but the actual elevation of Constantinople to the level of the other Sees probably stems from the same reason that Rome itself was originally included. They were both capitol cities of the Empire. And as the status of Rome declined, that of Constantinople rose. If the realities of political and geographic realities had not played a part in the status and importance of some of the Apostolic Sees, then one would expect to see Ephesus, for example, among them.)

By the time of St. Augustine, the division of language between the Latin West and the Greek East had become more pronounced than it had ever been before. The days of a sole emperor were largely gone and the Empire itself was more strongly divided into a Western Empire under Rome and an Eastern Empire under Constantinople than it had generally been before. The East had Persia as its biggest rival; the threat that Islam became did not yet exist. While Christianity and trade still tied East and West together, those bonds were growing weaker.

In that context, we have to add the fact that St. Augustine stood head and shoulders intellectually above anyone in the Latin West while the East retained many equal voices. Moreover St. Augustine did not write in Greek nor did he like to read Greek. Thus he did not interact with the Eastern Fathers theologically and it doesn’t seem that any of those in the East ever read St. Augustine’s theological works. It doesn’t appear that they were even translated into Greek until many centuries later. St. John Cassian (who I believe is the only Western saint with writings included, for example, in the Philokalia) did try to mediate some of the places where St. Augustine went too far, but his efforts were less appreciated in the West.

As a result, St. Augustine became the dominant interpretive voice in the West in a way that no single person ever became in the East. His interpretations eventually became the normative base for all Western theology. Protestantism rejected some of the late medieval practices and theology of the Roman Catholic Church, but they remained rooted in an Augustinian perspective of reality. If anything, they went further along the path of that perspective than St. Augustine himself ever did. Thus we get ideas like ‘total depravity’ that certainly go beyond anything St. Augustine taught.

At any rate, those seem to be the primary factors in the tapestry of divergence to my eyes. Anyone think I’m missing or overlooking anything?


Evangelical Is Not Enough 10

Posted: February 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 10

The tenth and final chapter of Thomas Howard’s book, Envoi, stresses that all Christians engaged in this discussion are, or should be allies, and not enemies. While some embrace modern Christian divisions and pluralism (unfortunately including my own SBC denomination as illustrated in a recent issue of the SBTC Texan), most Christians recognize the wrongness of the place in which we find ourselves. We know what the Holy Scriptures say about divisions, about love, and about communion, and we recognize that we’ve fallen so far that it’s hard to even tell how to begin to heal all that we have done. Howard suggests three things that must be accomplished if we are ever to return to something like what we should be as the Church.

First, Howard suggests we must return to the episcopate. “Pastors need pastors.” Having largely been a part of loosely association congregational churches, I sense a great deal of truth in that. As you study the history of the Church, you cannot help but be struck by the way the bishops held us together through their communion with each other. Oh, there were bad bishops. And there were times that the people (the laos) had to stand against and reject heretical bishops — even meeting in the fields rather than in the church. But those form the exception rather than the rule. Most of the time the bishops were the glue. St. Ignatius of Antioch’s vision of the fullness of the Church (it’s catholicity) centered on the bishop surrounded by his presbyters, deacons, and people largely held true for many centuries. Until we all begin to return to that vision, catholicity will certainly remain out of reach.

Second, Howard insists the Eucharist must return as the focal point for Christian worship. Again, I think he’s right. That has always been the center of Christian liturgy. Always, that is until recently when some turned the liturgy of the Word into the focal point. That was an error of enormous proportions and impact. It turned our worship into something like the synagogue worship of rabbinic Judaism or the mosques of Islam while simultaneously making it less than either.

And third, Howard suggests that a return to the Christian year would be beneficial. It would put us back on the same ground, telling and living the same story, redeeming time and making it present. And we would all be doing it together.

Howard’s book has been a good, easily read introduction to the deep history and practice of the Christian church. I have a hard time judging how well he speaks to his target audience of evangelicals. Even though I’ve lived among the evangelical tribe for years, I’m still often surprised by them. I suppose I am one since I can’t really say that I’m anything else, but I’m still often bemused.


For the Life of the World 28

Posted: January 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 28

The series continues in section 1 of the sixth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here again is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter six.

Christianity, with its message offering fullness of life, has contributed more than anything else to the liberation of man from the fears and pessimism of religion. Secularism, in this sense, is a phenomenon within the Christian world, a phenomenon impossible without Christianity. Secularism rejects Christianity insofar as Christianity has identified itself with the “old religion” and is forcing upon the world those “explanations” and “doctrines” of death and life which Christianity has itself destroyed.

Christianity offers life from and within the ultimate source of all life — God. And yet so much of it has degenerated today into little more than a discussion about what happens to the “real” you after you die. That’s the focus of traditional religion and should never be the central focus of Christianity.

It would be a great mistake, however, to think of secularism as simply an “absence of religion.” It is, in fact, itself a religion, and as such, an explanation of death and a reconciliation with it. It is the religion of those who are tired of having the world explained in terms of an “other world” of which no one knows anything, and life explained in terms of a “survival” about which no one has the slightest idea; tired of having, in other words, life given “value” in terms of death. Secularism is an “explanation” of death in terms of life. The only world we know is this world, the only life given to us is this life — so thinks a secularist — and it is up to us men to make it as meaningful, as rich, as happy as possible. Life ends with death. This is unpleasant, but since it is natural, since death is a universal phenomenon, the best thing man can do about it is simply to accept it as something natural. As long as he lives, however, he need not think about it, but should live as though death did not exist. … The American “funeral home” is indeed the very symbol of secularist religion, for it expresses both the quiet acceptance of death as something natural (a house among other houses with nothing typical about it) and the denial of death’s presence in life.

That actually describes the perspective of many modern Christians. On the one hand there are those who view everything in terms of the “afterlife” (which Fr. Schmemann calls the “old religion”) and on the other hand are at least as many who mostly ignore death, think in terms of the “best life now,” and when they must face death, consider it as something unpleasant, but natural. Neither perspective, though, is actually Christian in any sense that can be connected to our historical faith. And secularism is increasingly common in our culture because it works. It helps more with its life-centered approach than most religious approaches.

But it is here that we reach the heart of the matter. For Christianity help is not the criterion. Truth is the criterion. The purpose of Christianity is not to help people by reconciling them with death, but to reveal the Truth about life and death in order that people may be saved by this Truth. Salvation, however, is not only not identical with help, but is, in fact, opposed to it. … If the purpose of Christianity were to take away from man the fear of death, to reconcile him with death, there would be no need for Christianity, for other religions have done this, indeed, better than Christianity. And secularism is about to produce men who will gladly and corporately die — and not just live — for the triumph of the Cause, whatever it may be.

Indeed, we have already seen that last prediction come to fruition in the decades since Fr. Schmemann wrote it. So what then is Christianity?

Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed, and not a “mystery” to be explained. … Only Christianity proclaims it to be abnormal and, therefore, truly horrible. … In the light of Christ, this world, this life are lost and are beyond mere “help,” not because there is fear of death in them, but because they have accepted and normalized death. To accept God’s world as a cosmic cemetery which is to be abolished and replaced by an “other world” which looks like a cemetery (“eternal rest”) and to call this religion, to live in a cosmic cemetery and to “dispose” every day of thousands of corpses and to get excited about a “just society” and to be happy! — this is the fall of man. It is not the immorality or the crimes of man that reveal him as a fallen being; it is his “positive ideal” — religious or secular — and his satisfaction with this ideal. This fall, however, can be truly revealed only by Christ, because only in Christ is the fullness of life revealed to us, and death, therefore, becomes “awful,” the very fall from life, the enemy. It is this world (and not any “other world”), it is this life (and not some “other life”) that were given to man to be a sacrament of the divine presence, given as communion with God, and it is only through this world, this life, by “transforming” them into communion with God that man was to be. The horror of death is, therefore, not in its being the “end” and not in physical destruction. By being separation from the world and life, it is separation from God. The dead cannot glorify God. It is, in other words, when Christ reveals Life to us that we can hear the Christian message about death as the enemy of God. It is when Life weeps at the grave of the friend, when it contemplates the horror of death, that the victory over death begins.

Christ wept at the tomb of Lazarus. Christ agonized over the horror of his own impending death. That’s what Fr. Schmemann is referencing in his closing line above. Another thing I recall hearing at funerals is that a person died when God determined they should die. They are essentially making God responsible for death instead of recognizing death as the enemy. It’s little wonder that so many reject such a religion in favor of almost anything else. If it’s what I believed Christianity was, I would reject it in a heartbeat myself. No faith is better than that. Buddhism is better than that. Shintoism is better than that. Hinduism, in its many and varied forms, is better than that. If I believed in a God like that, I might as well convert to Islam. Insha’Allah.

Thanks, but no thanks.


My Church History Perspective 6 – Since when is “modern” the center of Christianity?

Posted: December 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on My Church History Perspective 6 – Since when is “modern” the center of Christianity?

The title of this post flows from the fact that a lot of the discussion within Christianity in the US sometimes seems to revolve around “modernity.” Now, I will not argue that the modern culture in (primarily) Western Europe and the US was not significant for Christianity. It’s pretty much the culture that gave birth to the entire Protestant tradition. And it shaped not only our part of the world, but greatly influenced the rest of the world. That influence was in part positive and in part negative. Our scientific advances have made life better. But Western colonialism and the sense of “Manifest Destiny” (strangely rooted in some sort of a “Christian” ethos) under which we conquered what is now the United States left scars across the world. And the 20th century demonstrated clearly how our ability to improve life went hand in hand with our ability to destroy it.

The 20th century began the “postmodern” turn in Western culture and societies. Although still developing or “emerging“, that’s the culture that largely formed and shaped me. A discussion of that turn is beyond the scope of this series, but obviously that turn highlighted a question among Christians in what is broadly called “the West” today. What would the cultural turn mean for the train wreck that “Western” Christianity had become? Within that somewhat limited context, a discussion of “modern” and “postmodern” Christianity made and continues to make sense.

However, I had a problem when I began to encounter another term: premodern. Whether you are speaking of cultures and societies in general, or Christianity specifically, there is no one thing definably “premodern.” We can speak of Christianity within the culture and context of the Roman Empire (East or West). We can talk about Christianity in the context of western Europe after the city of Rome fell and the Roman Empire essentially contracted to the East. We can talk about Christianity in the early (or late) middle ages in western Europe. We can talk about Christianity in Armenia after it had won its freedom from Persia. We can talk about Christianity among the Slavs following their dramatic conversion. We can talk about Christianity in what we now called the Middle East before Islam, after the development of Islam but before Constantinople fell, or after the fall of the eastern part of the Roman Empire. The list goes on and on.

Christianity is not centered on the modern culture of western Europe and the United States and cannot be defined in relation to that one culture. Framing the discussion in terms of modern, postmodern, and premodern seems to try to do exactly that. Even when you limit the scope of the discussion to western Europe, there is no common “premodern” period. There were rather many periods, cultures, and cultural shifts before the advent of modernity.

Further, western Europe was not the birthplace of Christianity. Attempting to center the discussion on the cultural shifts of the west strikes me as … odd. I don’t approach history that way. I suppose I don’t try to construct some sort of unified arc within which I can fit the topic of Christianity. Instead, I approach the history of the Church within each of its cultural settings simply trying to understand what it was and how it operated within that context. Although I’m as prone to generalize and make broad statements as anyone else, when pushed I drop back into the story of the small.


Sola Scriptura 5 – Yanking On Those Bootstraps

Posted: August 21st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Sola Scriptura | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Yesterday I briefly touched on the complex manner in which the canon of Holy Scripture we often call the Bible developed over time within and as part of the tradition of the church. Scripture is not something which somehow stands apart or separate from the church and its tradition. Rather it is a product of the church and one of the foremost repositories of its tradition. This strange role in which many seem to place Scripture, as somehow in opposition to tradition and as somehow separate from and over the church, is an exceedingly distorted and unhistorical place. In some ways it really is a lot more similar to what Islam would say of Qur’an, which is even described at times as somehow with Allah from the beginning and engaged in the process of creation.

Moreover, as a philosophical idea, it has the proverbial problem of trying to tug itself up by its own bootstraps. A central assertion of sola scriptura in its various forms to the extent that I understand them is that every central or essential belief or practice of the Church must be found in the Bible. However, the concept of sola scriptura itself cannot be found anywhere in Scripture. Further, while there isn’t much related to that particular philosophical idea in the New Testament (since it’s not an idea that the first century church would have encountered in a predominantly oral culture), the things that are most closely related actually contradict the idea of sola scriptura. For instance, in 1 Timothy 3:15, it’s not Scripture that is the pillar and ground of truth, but the church. And in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, Paul exhorts the church to “..stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” The church, the pillar and ground of truth, is urged to stand and hold to the oral and written traditions it has been given. There are a few other places with somewhat related ideas, but they all express that same general theme.

And that, of course, begs the question. If sola scriptura is not itself found in Scripture, and it’s not found in the historical life and practice of the ancient church, and it’s not part of the tradition of the church anywhere until it was invented in the 16th century, why believe it?


The Didache 13 – The Faces of the Saints

Posted: June 23rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 13 – The Faces of the Saints

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

My child, remember night and day him who speaks the word of God to you, and honor him as you do the Lord. For wherever the lordly rule is uttered, there is the Lord. And seek out day by day the faces of the saints, in order that you may rest upon their words.

This section begins with an exhortation to always remember and honor the one “who speaks the word of God to you.” It’s an interesting phrase and none of the other translations make it clear. The “my child” reminds me of John. And thinking of him leads me to think that it does mean the shepherd, the episcopos, the bishop.

The next sentence is confusing, but after reading several translations, N.T. Wright came to mind. Whereever it is proclaimed that “Jesus is Lord,” he is particularly present. Of course, Jesus is Lord everywhere and over every power whether or not his lordship is proclaimed. Nevertheless, there is a particular and mysterious power in the proclamation itself. Further, connected as this is with the first sentence and the one following, there is a particular connection between the proclamation, the proclaiming community, and the bishop who shepherds the community in that particular geographical location.

In addition to its obvious meaning of those who live in the same place and time as you and with whom you should be closely bound, the last sentence above led me to think of icons. Those are representations, mystical connections if you will, to those whose bodies sleep, but who we still believe are with us, surrounding us, and involved in the life of the church. As Christians, we do not believe that death has any power over us. We know that the history of iconography stretches back at least to the second century. And it seems likely that is goes all the way back into the first. In fact, you don’t find any major influence or presence of iconoclasm in the church until Islam began to influence it. At any rate, it was a picture that came to my mind as I reflected on that sentence and the way it connected to the other two. The Teaching is often dense and says much with few words.


The Great Emergence

Posted: May 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

I love listening to Phyllis Tickle. I’ve listened to her speak a number of times over the years (via mp3) and have loved every instance. I believe The Great Emergence is the first book by her I’ve read, though I do have The Words of Jesus waiting on my shelf. I also realize that everyone under the sun has already read and reviewed this book. I’m a latecomer. It took me a while to buy it and then with this minor matter of a celiac diagnosis, my reading has fallen behind the curve lately. 😉

With this particular book, I find myself in the odd position of wanting to like the book more than I actually did. Instead I found it something of a mixed bag. I do think she accurately captures the spirit of the present age and the tension within which we all live in the West and particularly in the US. Those are the parts of the book I found myself almost cheering along with. On the other hand, I found the historical perspective a bit light and the whole 500 year cycle somewhat contrived. Those were probably my least favorite parts of the book.

The section of the book that tried to tie together a whole host of disparate historical events while leaving out many significant realities of the era in order to create a “crisis” around 500-600 CE similar to that which occurred in the Great Schism and the Reformation was the least compelling. I have the disadvantage, I think, of a lot of familiarity with both the imperial (and contra-imperial) history and the Christian history of that era. I just don’t see the same sort of either societal or Christian crisis at that point in time, certainly not working in conjunction. Yes, the West did have some pretty serious societal issues at that time and ongoing. But that was not mirrored in the Christian schism. At that point in time, the See of Rome, largely consumed by those other societal issues, pretty much acted in conjunction with the great Sees of what is known now as Orthodoxy. The schism had as much to do with the politics of the Roman Empire, in its capitol of Constantinople, and with misunderstandings over the actual Greek meanings of the words used. The Armenian state, for example, was caught in a war against Persia at the time and the bishops of its church were unable to attend the council. When they received the council’s results in writing later, they interpreted it as a resurgence of Nestorianism and rejected it accordingly. The monophysite heresy did largely die out over time and never took permanent hold in either the Chalcedonian or non-Chalcedonian churches. The Oriental Orthodox church is not monophysite, nor are they continuing something older or even different than Orthodoxy. Rather their theology is best understood as miaphysite, which is theologically consistent with Chalcedon though it uses different language.

I think there is a deeper misunderstanding of the first thousand years of Christianity embedded within these issues. Toward the end of the book, Phyllis Tickle writes of the impact of Constantine in a way that simply does not fit the historical realities of the time. Further, she seems to attribute the renewed rise of gnosticism, the incorporation of Greek philosophical ideas, the rise of the image of an angry God, and the loss of a Jewish character to Christianity to Constantine rather than to the era of the Great Schism, which is when it actually happened in the West. I don’t disagree with the charges she raises, but they are largely exactly the same charges the Eastern Church has raised against the Western Church when it has been able to interact and speak at all between Islamic and Communist oppression, not something that entered the Church when Constantine made Christianity a legal religion.

With that said, I think her analysis of the Western Church over the last thousand years is pretty accurate for the brief space in which she has to write in this book. Her analysis of the way the postmodern mind deconstructs the structure established in the Reformation (attempting to base authority on a text) is, as they say, spot on. And we are certainly in the middle of both a societal upheaval and an upheaval in our understanding of religion today in the US – beyond a shadow of a doubt.

So I guess I give this book one thumb up. It’s worth reading and it’s a quick read. But read it with a grain of salt, especially when it’s discussing the first thousand years of Christianity.