Monday, August 30, 2010

Being With

For the past few years I have been reading quite of lot of the writings of two theologians, Douglas John Hall and James Alison. Hall is a Canadian and his theology could be described as Lutheran, although he is a member of the United Church of Canada. Alison is English and a Roman Catholic and his theology is deeply influenced by the work of French philosopher RenĂ© Girard. As I have read these two I have looked for areas of agreement or convergence.  Although there are probably many points about which these two would disagree, I have long sensed that there was much about which they do agree.

Reading Alison's latest book, Broken Hearts and New Creations: Intimations of a Great Reversal, I found this: is inaccurate to talk about humans as if we have a 'self' within us which is just born that way,...and which then independently, and from out of its own resources, chooses to get in touch with rest of humanity. What we have is an intrinsically relational self.... (Page 162)
A relational self? That was something about which Hall was also very clear:
In the tradition of Jerusalem, however, the primary interest is not with various distinctive beings and the qualities that constitute them but rather their interrelatedness....To put it in a formulary way, being itself for this tradition is relational-is "with-being" (Mitsein). (Professing the Faith: Christian Theology in a North American Context, page 147)
I have become who I am because of the relationships in which I have shared, from the earliest relationships with my family to the wide variety of relationships that I now share. My being is, as both Alison and Hall assert, relational, with-being. And that is also, in the tradition of Jerusalem, true about God's being - God is Emmanuel, God-with-us. I have said many times, at the risk of being branded a heretic, that my reading of Scripture has led me to believe that God wants to be God only in relationship with us.

Being with presents us with some challenges, both in our more intimate relationships and in other less intimate but important relationships. Marriage, as I have pointed to couples, is not an extreme makeover operation. We are changed in marriage, but not because our spouses demand it, but because God works in that relationship, as God does in other relationships , to mature us. A problem arises in any relationship when one party insists  on a specific change in the other in order for the relationship to continue. The problem isn't that such demands are always unreasonable, but is whether the specific demand can be met without damaging other important relationships.

It seems to me that Episcopalians face this kind of challenge. We have been blessed to be in relationships with Anglicans in many countries, but now many of those Anglicans are demanding that we change in order to continue those relationships. The specific change that is demanded of us is to reverse the course we have taken towards full inclusion of lesbian and gay members of the church, or what has been called sacramental equality for all members. Reversing course on this would damage what I count as very important relationships within the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, as well as relationships with a wide variety of people outside the church.

I believe that many of us in the Episcopal Church have, to use a term from the Lutherans, bound consciences. We have, after careful study of Scripture, come to the conclusion that committed same-sex relationships can be holy and appropriate for the church to bless, and that persons in such relationships may be ordained.  We believe that God has led us to this conclusion, although we recognize that we could be wrong, and that we are bound to this conviction unless and until we are convinced that we were wrong. I have listened to the arguments against this conviction and remain unconvinced. I would be very pleased if I could remain in communion with Anglicans who disagree with me about this, just as I was pleased to be in communion with Anglicans who did not share my pacifist convictions. Sadly this now seems impossible.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Place of Shame

I have been struggling for some time with the issue of sameness and difference, In an e-mail about a year ago, I suggested that trying to ignore cultural differences might be one stage in a process of assimilation and, perhaps, the assertion of hegemony. If we are all the same, the sameness must be the sameness of the dominant culture.  But on the other hand, we are the same, we are all human, molded by cultures that, in spite of many important differences, are alike in defining themselves in rivalry with other cultures, in seeing reality as “us against them.”

It is that rivalry which, at its worst, leads to scapegoating and genocide, Ignoring our common humanity, the Other becomes the target of our hatred, the one on whom we project all the nasty bits of ourselves that we are unwilling to acknowledge. We begin to suspect that the presence of the Other is the reason why life isn’t perfect.  If only we could get rid of the Other, life would return to the way it used to be, the way it was always meant to me.

We see signs of this in the growing xenophobia in this country, as well as in the still dominant heterosexism. The chief cause of all our problems is the presence of immigrants, not only undocumented ones, but also those who have permission to be here and those who have become citizens. Of course, the evil Other is not every immigrant, but only those who are not like us,. The chief threat to marriage and the family is not the infidelity of married heterosexuals, but the lesbian and gay persons who have been or want to be married.

In the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ we are offered the possibility of living without rivalry. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8) We see Jesus occupying the place of shame on the cross, freeing us forever from the power of death, freeing us to seek peace, not by driving out the Other, not by killing the Other, but by being forgiven and becoming forgiving.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The President's Faith

The other day, in a blog discussion about the President's decision not to join a church in Washington, someone commented, "That is because he's more comfortable in a mosque." I hope the President would be comfortable in a mosque, in a synagogue, in a Christian church. But the comment was not about the President's ability to be present in a wide variety of places. It was about the weird notion that this President, an adult convert to the Christan faith, isn't a Christian, and the frightening subtext of the comment appears to be that it is alright to be prejudiced against Muslims, in the same way that it once was, in many places, alright to be prejudiced against Roman Catholics or Jews. I lived as a very young child in a suburban community where it was impossible for a Jew to buy a home. I didn't know that until a half-century later when a Jewish friend told me that the reason she had grown up in a neighboring town was because her family couldn't buy a home in the town where I had lived.

Standing up to prejudice against Muslims, as New York's mayor did in his remarks about the Islamic center controversy, doesn't mean being uncritical about actions of some Muslims. In fact, we need to be honest about our assessments of the actions of all our neighbors, not scapegoating any of them, but holding them to same standard to which we are held. It is, I think, appropriate for New Yorkers to say that they would rather the Islamic center be built somewhere else, but is entirely inappropriate to insist that that point of view trump the desire and the rights of those building the center. There are many things in life that I would rather not have to endure, but it would be childish of me to insist that those things be banned.

The question of the President's faith raises another question: is having a religious faith essential to success in politics? The Constitution, in Article VI, section 3, is clear that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." That's the Constitution, but it seems that having no religious faith would be an almost insurmountable obstacle to political success.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The First Amendment

I sometimes wonder how some people can miss the point entirely. The current controversy over the building on an Islamic center a few blocks from the World Trade Center is one of those times. 
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
While the first section of this First Amendment to the Constitution originally only applied to the federal government,  by the middle of the 20th century the Supreme Court had ruled that both the anti-establishment and free exercise guarantees applied to the states as well. Given the free exercise guarantee, why are people trying to block the Islamic center? Because they think that the guarantee only applies to them? Because they don't see that restricting other people's freedom means that their freedom is at risk? Because they think that their being offended by the proximity of the center to the WTC should be reason enough for the center's organizers to scrap their plans?

Near the end of the movie The American President, President Shepherd makes a telling comment about Senator Rumson's attacks on him for belonging to the American Civil Liberties Union. Shepherd said that he realized that he had been wrong to think that Rumson didn't get it. The reality was that Rumson couldn't sell it. I think that maybe that's true about those who oppose the Islamic center. Yes, they understand the First Amendment guarantees, but opposition is so much easier to sell. As President Shepherd said earlier in that scene, America is advanced citizenship. It's hard work, the hard work of defending the rights of  people who are very different from us, people who hold opinions that offend us, even people who do terrible things. It's the hard work of my realizing that those who are speaking out against the plans for the Islamic center have a right to do that and my defending that right. President Shepherd was right that it's advanced citizenship and I worry that we might not pass the course.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Numbers

In my occasional visits to conservative blogs in the Anglican world, I have found comments about the drops in the average Sunday attendance in the Episcopal Church, comments that assert that these are evidence that the "revisionist" position of the Episcopal Church is wrong. popularity become evidence that one was following Christ?

I think the focus on - perhaps obsession with - numbers is an indicate that we are embracing, not the theology of the Cross, but the theology of glory. Success as the world measures it - in market share, in growth in budgets - is not what Jesus was about. Paul put it succinctly in his letter to Christians in the most powerful city in the world:
Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity. (Romans 12:2, Phillips translation)
While it was comments by conservatives that set me to thinking about the numbers game, I am well aware that revisionists like me are as prone to play the game as anyone. We are being called, I believe, to be communities in the diaspora, communities that are no longer the dominant cultural and religious ones in the United States. We are being called to live faithfully, discerning as best we can God's will for us, and not worrying about whether we are winning any popularity contests.

Friday, August 13, 2010


Although the term is from the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church, incardination is a good word to use when any Christian moves from one place to another. In my case, it was moving from East Aurora, a village in Western New York, to Danvers, a town in Massachusetts. In East Aurora I had some sense of what it meant to be a Christian, an Episcopalian, and, as the English would say, a Clerk in Holy Orders. Here in Danvers I will have to work that out or, more accurately, discover it, have it shown to me. I will, if I want to preside and preach regularly, have to be licensed by the Bishop of Massachusetts. But preaching and presiding is not all that there is to being a presbyter, and being a Christian, one who is "sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own for ever," is a vocation all by itself. So the work of discerning how to be in this new place, how to be incarnate here may take some time. There will be others involved in the discerning - my wife, our daughter and son-in-law and their eleven-month-old daughter, old and new colleagues and friends, and some perfect strangers. I can trust that God will use all of these people to teach me how to be me in this new place.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


There have been on some conservative blogs in Anglican cyberspace assertions that the Episcopal Church's Presiding Bishop has denied the divinity of Christ and the resurrection. I responded to the challenge to read a very lengthy analysis of some of the Presiding Bishop's statements. The writer of that analysis concluded that while Bishop Jefferts Schori had not actually denied that Jesus is divine or rose from the dead, her statements could lead - by what I saw as a convoluted path - to an implicit denial of the two doctrines.

The assertions raise the question of how much theological diversity is possible within the Episcopal Church.  It seems obvious that there are boundaries, that there are theological positions that are out-of-bounds. However the discerning of exactly where the boundaries are is not simple. Thoughtful and faithful Episcopalians will disagree about whether a way of understanding the atonement or the person of the Christ is beyond the boundaries. I have, for example, been told that my rejection of Anselm's theory of the atonement puts my understanding of the atonement out-of-bounds. 

I recognize that others have in their minds placed the boundary for theological diversity where I wouldn't and that there will always be arguments about boundaries. My hope is that we can recognize these differences, not as matters of bad faith, but as honest disagreements among sisters and brothers in Christ, disagreements that need no lead to separation, but to continued discussion and, perhaps, deeper respect for one another,