Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Where the Battle Rages

Matrin Luther wrote:

If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest expositon every portion of the truth about God except precisely that little point at which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing him. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.

Knowing where that little point is here and now is almost impossible. We simply don't have the perspective. But the difficulty of the task does not free us from the responsibility of working to discern where that little point lies.

The Episcopal Church is struggling with many important issues , but I am sure that the little point lies somewhere in our struggles with poverty, with the growing gap between the world's richest and poorest people, the growing gap between its richest and poorest nations. When the Episcopal Church's General Convention stated in 2006 that the Millenium Development Goals would be the church's major mission focus, there were cries of protest from some who think that evangelism is the only mission focus possible. To me that response comes very close to what Luther saw as failing to confess Christ while bold professing him. For me the central challenge for Christians in the First World is responding to the pressing needs of people in developing nations. And our response can't simply be aid; it needs to involve the transformation of the world's economic institutions. So long as those institutions do not make sustainable development in the world's poorest nations a priority, the gap will continue to grow.

I don't assume that meeting the challenge will be easy and I may be wrong in thinking that God's and our concern for the poor is the little point where the battle must be waged. I am willing to wrong, but I am unwilling to sit back and not enter the fray, unwilling to spend my time and energy only in safe places. There is risk in waging this battle, but I believe that it is the one in which I can move beyond professing Christ to confessing him.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Theology is Contextual

In May I wrote a post about the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor and the "lie of context-less judgment." I had come to the conclusion quite a long time ago that it is impossible to separate completely our decision-making from our contexts. That conclusion had led me to realize that I had lied when I told my draft board - remember draft boards? - that I would have been a conscientious objector during World War II. Of course, the question was not a legitimate one as it assumed that one could know how one would have viewed military service having been raised in a very different time. Context isn't everything, but it cannot be ignored.

I have been reading the first volume - Thinking the Faith - of Douglas John Hall's trilogy, Christian Theology in a North American Context. In that first volume, Hall devotes considerable space to laying out the reasons why theology must be contextual, and the danger of assuming that it can be anything else. Like unacknowledged and unexamined privilege, unacknowledged and unexamined context is very dangerous. When we fail to realize that our theology is contextual we can fall into the trap of thinking that it is universal and, worse yet, final.

I will not rehearse here Hall's argument but I do recommend his books to those who want to explore further the thin tradition of Theologia Crucis. (Lighten Our Darkness: Toward an Indigenous Theology of the Cross was my introduction to Hall. The Cross in our Context: Jesus in Our Suffering World is the book that brought me back. Both are considerably more accessible than the trilogy. I have shared some of my thoughts about Hall and the theology of the cross in an earlier post.)

Although we have a desire for finality, for the kind of certitude which is absolute, theology, thinking about God, cannot have that kind of finality. It will always be provisional and contextual, rooted in the here and now. We make a mistake when we assume that medieval scholastic theology or the theology of the Reformation is timeless and isn't contextual. The mistake is a serious one, leading us to try to speak about God in our own contexts with ideas that can no longer convey Good News. But more importantly, simply repeating the theologies of the past won't work because the One about whom we speak is the Living God whom we have come to know as Emmanuel, God with us. Not God without us and not God with some generic us, but God with us in our particularity. The Living God who is on the move, whose work of reconciliation, of redemption is not finished. The decisive, pivotal act has been accomplished and the words of Jesus - "It is finished!" - are true, but the Last Day has not yet arrived and the missio Dei is still a going concern. As the angel said to the women at the tomb, "Why do you look for the living among the dead?" (Luke 24:5) With proper respect for those who have gone before us and with proper study of their writings, we are to be about the business of thinking and talking and writing about God in our own contexts, about God with us here and now.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? (1 Corinthians 6:1)

These words of St. Paul have, I would guess, been cited more often in the past few years than in most decades - or even centuries - since they were written. They are often cited by those who condemn as a betrayal of the Gospel civil litigation to resolve property disputes between Episcopal dioceses and congregations that have left the Episcopal Church. I do not think that resorting to the courts is, in fact, a betrayal of the Gospel for three reasons.
  1. I respect the rights of those on both sides to seek to protect what they believe are their property. It is for them, I believe, a matter of faithful stewardship of the resources that have been entrusted to them. Although I think that those who have left the Episcopal Church do not have a right to Episcopal Church property, I recognize that those who disagree with me have every right to defend their position in court.
  2. Unlike the Corinthians to whom St. Paul wrote, we can not take these disputes "before the saints," as there is no body within the Anglican Communion with the authority to settle these disputes. We can wish that there was, but there isn't, so we are left with the civil courts when negotiation fails.
  3. The citing of Paul's admonition sounds hollow when done by those who have already in so many ways accepted the authority of the government in other matters of their organizational life. Unless I am mistaken, those who appeal to St. Paul belong to congregations and dioceses that are incorporated in their states and which have accepted gladly the tax-exempt status granted by the IRS.

I would rather have seen all the property questions settled without recourse to the courts, but I believe that they must be settled, in court or elsewhere. The properties in question were given to the Episcopal Church for the furthering of its ministry and its sharing in the missio Dei. Settling which parties have a legal right to these properties is important.