I’ve recently begun seeing a Jesuit spiritual director. In light of the big Catholic Twitter blowup between the New YorkTimes‘s token conservativecolumnist Ross Douthat and the so-called ‘liberal’ Catholic academy (whose only qualifications for liberalism seem to be derived less from their credentials and more from having read Gaudium et spes and liked it), I guess I have an ‘in’ on this ‘big Jesuit plot’ of which Douthat speaks, even though I, like Douthat, do not have a theology degree.
To be sure, I’m still an Anglican – a Chinglican, rather – which makes me the least qualified to speak about a debate among Catholics in which the word ‘heresy‘ is being thrown around and made to sound synonymous with ‘liberal Protestantism’ or (Cranmer forbid) the ‘Anglican Communion.’ That I, who am still a canonical schismatic, am seeing a Jesuit spiritual director probably doesn’t make the Society of Jesus look any better than the non-so-subtle jabs Douthat has been throwing around, including columns about Pope Francis’s ‘ostentatious humility’ and ‘plot to change Catholicism,’ tweets about La Cività Cattolica‘s Antonio Spadaro’s ‘moustache-twirling cartoon villain‘ with a last name synonymous with ‘sophist,’ and a First Things lecture lamenting the continued success of Jesuit universities among the Catholic faithful. Even America Magazine‘s Jim Martin’s name seems to have been ‘dragged through the mud.’
This is a little tempest in a teapot, really – as numerous friends and colleagues have pointed out to me, no posts have been lost, no excommunications have been issued, no one’s been tortured, and no heads have rolled. But if the stakes are this low, it means that we can have a little bit of fun.
As far as I can tell from the spiritual direction sessions I’ve had so far, the big Jesuit plot to take over the world has to do with convincing the ‘subject’ – as in, my selfhood – that subjective experience has something to do with the supernatural. Because of this, most lovers of religious orders of the Dominican and Benedictine variety seem to think of Jesuits as floozies, which is really too bad because, having also gotten spiritual counselling from the Dominicans of the Polish variety (which means they’re truly legit), I’d say that Jesuits, Dominicans, and Benedictines believe pretty much the same thing about the supernatural.
I came to this conclusion because, as I’ve worked through things with my spiritual director, I’ve come to the conclusion that prior to really getting to know the Jesuits, I’ve been thinking about spiritual direction all wrong. This is probably because my Anglicanism is, for better or worse, heavily influenced by Susan Howatch’s Church of England series, where the Anglican monk serving as the spiritual director is like really into Carl Jung. I’m not dissing Jung, per se, but I am saying that I’ve discovered that I’ve often thought of spiritual direction more like psychotherapy, in which (as one of my friends who is way too influenced by the Franciscans used to make fun of me) the task is more or less an ‘exegesis of the self.’
For all the Ignatian talk about subjectivity, Jesuit spiritual direction isn’t really an exegesis of the self, per se. It feels (hahaha) more like an exegesis of the effect of the supernatural on the self. As I understand it from my spiritual director, there are consolations (the effects of supernatural grace that give life to the self) and desolations (the effects of supernatural attacks that demoralize the self).
This means that if we’re going to talk about a big Jesuit plot, it’s something along the lines of actually having to believe in a reality called the supernatural, or what one French Jesuit who has had no small impact on post-Vatican II Catholicism, Henri de Lubac, calls le surnaturel, the ‘suspended middle’ (as, hehe, Anglican theologian John Milbank calls it) between nature and grace. If we’re going to talk about ‘consolations’ and ‘desolations’ as ‘grace’ and ‘attacks,’ it means (God forbid) that we actually have to believe in the personal existence of angels, demons, and (good heavens!) God himself.
I don’t have a theology degree, and I’m really just a beginner at this Jesuit thing (I haven’t even made the Exercises!), but forgive me if it sounds like this big Jesuit plot to take over the world is fairly orthodox, even conservative. Of course, I understand that what some self-professing ‘conservatives’ are allergic to may be all this talk about the ‘subjective’ – I suppose the word ‘heresy’ is being floated when people are talking about, say, the consolations and desolations that befall persons in divorce-and-remarriage situations when they can’t receive the Eucharist. But the point here, I claim, is not ‘heresy’ versus ‘orthodoxy’; heavens, if we’re talking about le surnaturel, how far can we even fall from the faith passed on through Holy Mother Church? It might rather be that these Protestant categories of ‘liberal = subjective’ and ‘conservative = objective’ don’t really play well in Catholic circles because the objective Dominicans and the subjective Jesuits will all likely agree that a) the supernatural objectively exists, b) it can objectively do something to your subjectivity, and c) it’s therefore worth probing the subject as a window into the objective supernatural. Duh.
Come to think of it, maybe demolishing these ideological categories will turn out to be one of the greatest contributions of this Jesuit pope’s magisterium.
But what do I know? I’m a Chinglican without a theology degree receiving Jesuit spiritual direction while having Dominican friends, so for all intents and purposes, I may well have fallen victim to the big Jesuit plot and ended up thinking with the church and her magisterium while still being canonically linked to the See of Canterbury. Oops.
In the spirit of more ancient texts that Churl will appreciate more than the average reader, I will simply say that I forbid you to read this post before you read Part 1.
In the previous post, I ended with a suggestion that Vicky Beeching’s gift to the church catholic by coming out brings enormous clarity to what is going on in the Anglican Communion, especially around the realignment that happened in the late 1990s and 2000s. For those who need a quick definition of what the realignment is, it’s a euphemism that refers to how Anglican and Episcopal parishes in the United States and Canada pulled out of their home dioceses because of North American Anglican moves to bless same-sex unions, ordain gay clergy, and elect gay bishops. Because they took cover in Anglican provinces mostly in Africa (though some in Asia, Australia, and the Southern Cone also took part), the narrative that took shape suggested that those who were historically the ones being evangelized were now re-evangelizing the evangelizers. This narrative usually flies under the header of Global South Anglicanism. For an academic version of this story, see Phil Jenkins’s The Next Christendom. For a popular version, Thad Barnum’s Never Silent is a fairly engaging account. For those who need all of the sordid details, please read my account of ‘Anne Hathaway Anglicanism.’
The reason I forbid readers to read this post before reading the previous post is because over in the other post, I’ve made all the necessary connections for why Beeching is an Anglican to whom we should pay attention — she’s an evangelical Anglican, her worship music has evangelical Anglican sources, she lived in Nashville and San Diego making contemporary Christian music so that her American evangelical connections are impeccable, and one of the privileged few to whom she had come out privately is the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Unwilling to rehearse of that here, I simply forbid you to read this post until you’ve done your due diligence with the previous post.
Vicky Beeching is an Anglican. This is very significant. That’s because of the person to whom Beeching would most likely be compared: Jennifer Knapp.
Like Vicky Beeching, Jennifer Knapp is also a popular contemporary Christian music personality who very publicly came out as a lesbian. Just as Vicky Beeching was confronted by outspoken anti-gay pastor-activist Scott Lively on live television when she came out, Knapp was also confronted by Pastor Bob Botsford on Larry King Live. Like Lively, Botsford told Knapp that his heart broke for her because she was living a lie that contradicted Scripture. Knapp’s response was that Botsford was not her pastor. If Botsford had been her pastor, Knapp reasoned, then it would have been fair to exercise pastoral jurisdiction over her as a church member. But she wasn’t. She was part of another congregation with other pastors who affirmed her, and her bottom line was that Botsford’s attempt to exercise pastoral authority over her was illegitimate because it violated the boundaries between his congregation and hers.
It would be tempting to compare Beeching to Knapp because almost the exact same thing happened to Beeching on live television. As I said, Beeching was called out almost exactly like Knapp because the more conservative evangelical man standing in for the Christian Right accused Beeching (like Knapp) of living a lie contrary to Scripture.
It’s what follows next that makes everything about Beeching different from Knapp. That’s because Beeching is an Anglican.
Beeching can’t make the congregational autonomy argument that Knapp makes. This is because, as I said, Beeching is an Anglican. Anglicans don’t believe in congregational autonomy; our polities are parishes in dioceses under the jurisdiction of bishops that are in communion with each other and who all trace their succession through Canterbury to the apostles. Beeching can’t say to Lively like Knapp says to Botsford, ‘You are not my pastor,’ because congregational autonomy is not going to cut it for Beeching. Lively is thus not in a different ecclesial category for Beeching (as Botsford is for Knapp); he is in the sameecclesial category. He is a pastor, so Beeching merely says to him that it’s people like him who have caused her psychological damage. Observe well, then, the effects of this disagreement. The contention rests on Lively’s repetition that Beeching’s lifestyle is not ‘biblical,’ for Beeching argues that that there are multiple ways of reading Scripture and that the passages that he cites to condemn her sexual orientation have contested meanings.
Yet Beeching does not disown Lively the way that Knapp disowns Botsford. She knows that they’re stuck together in communion, terrible as that may sound, because as much as she may wish that she were ecclesially autonomous from him, the truth of the Anglican charism means that they cannot be sundered at an ontological level. Indeed, this raises the emotional stakes for her contention against Lively: if people like Lively have inflicted psychological damage on her and those whose sexual orientations are non-heteronormative and if they are ontologically stuck together, then it is an imperative for Beeching to demand that Lively stop oppressing her and hear her out on the multiplicity of hermeneutics, a demand that is in fact not unreasonable considering St. Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana, where Augustine allows in the preface for all sorts of biblical interpretations if they are governed by the rule of faith, which is charity.
In short, as an Anglican, Beeching understands what Knapp does not: there is no such thing as total ecclesial autonomy, and the more that one understands that, the more one works to make ecclesial co-existence at least bearable.
Dig deeper, though, and one finds that this ecclesial ontology has implications that drag that construct called ‘Global South Anglicanism’ into the fray. That’s because, as the BBC program itself mentions, Lively is close to the leaders of a nation-state called Uganda. Deny as he may that he had a hand in the draconinan Anti-Homosexuality Bill that threatened to execute queer persons in Uganda, Beeching herself recently shared a link that an American federal judge has ordered Lively to stand trial for crimes against humanity.
This is significant because Lively’s actions in the mid-2000s in Uganda disturbs the larger narrative of the Anglican realignment. Provinces such as Rwanda, Nigeria, Kenya, the Southern Cone, and yes, Uganda, took in some of these ‘realigned’ Anglican churches. As I related in my definition of the Anglican realignment (see above, scroll past the Gandalf GIF), this was the story of how the Global South Anglicans, especially from Africa, were re-evangelizing North America, especially from its capitulation to what might be chalked up to (in Southern Baptist terms) a ‘gay agenda.’ In other words, Anglicans in African nation-states were going to save Anglicans in the West.
The problem is that Lively’s actions suggest that this Global South Anglican narrative may not be as ‘Global South’ as meets the eye. If Lively was moving around Uganda around the same time that the Anglican realignment was going on, how many other Americans were invested in making the realignment happen?
Let’s dig further.
In the lead-up to the Scott Lively confrontation, Beeching recounts that one of the more harrowing experiences in her journey as a gay person was when she had an exorcism performed on her at a British evangelical camp. This also messes up the Global South Anglican narrative. After all, one of the more celebrated stories of the 1998 Lambeth Conference was of an African archbishop attempting an exorcism on a gay rights activist. Certainly, analyses at the time noted that African and Asian primates, bishops, priests, and deacons had mostly attended the same seminaries as their Global North counterparts. Yet according to the narrative of Global South Anglicanism, this phenomenon could also very well be explained via the African archbishop’s Global South conditions, where spirits are real and demons prowl and exorcisms happen regularly because priests have the same status as witchdoctors. Certainly, that’s how Phil Jenkins explains why Southeast Asian primate, Archbishop Moses Tay, attempted to exorcise the City of Vancouver because of the totem poles in its urban park, Stanley Park (The Next Christendom, p. 130).
The question is, how does that exoticized Global South Anglican narrative explain Beeching’s story of British evangelicals trying to exorcise her? Might the explanation that those Global South Anglicans attended the same schools in the Global North and were in collaboration with conservative Anglican, evangelical, and charismatic groups in the Global North hold more water, in light of Beeching’s experience?
Let’s keep digging.
The impression that one gets about the Anglican realignment is that the parishes that broke away were mostly evangelical Anglican. Though this group certainly included charismatic and Anglo-Catholic Anglicans, that the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) was heavily dominated by Sydney Anglicans (who apparently have to debate over whether their archbishop is ‘Reformed’ enough to hold office), as well as African and Asian Anglicans who emphasized the Bebbington Quadrilateral of evangelical distinctives (biblicism, conversionism, activism, and crucicentrism), who held an after-gathering at All Souls’ Church in London seems to confirm this image. Certainly also, some of the charismatics would technically fit into an ‘evangelical Anglican’ stream — ‘evangelical’ here defined in Anglican terms as those in the English church who understand authority as primarily derived from Scripture, not, say, apostolic succession (like the Anglo-Catholics) or scientific progress (like the latitudinarians).
Well, like it or not, Vicky Beeching is an evangelical Anglican. Despite the image of those who push what Beeching calls ‘LGBT theology‘ tends to be from the more liberal wings of Anglicanism — James Pike, Jack Spong, Gene Robinson, Mary Glasspool, Marc Andrus, Patrick Cheng — how much of a shock to the system is it that Beeching continues to identify as an evangelical Anglican who takes the Bible so seriously that her post defending her theological views is based on the Bible?
What’s the point?
The point, then, is that Vicky Beeching embodies what the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, calls ‘the body’s grace.’ For Williams, the fact of same-sex attraction and even unions are a gift to the church because they help Christians think about how love is expressed corporeally. Certainly, when his successor, Justin Cantuar, expresses that same-sex couples often put opposite-sex married couples to shame in their care for each other, Welby is also referencing Williams.
But Beeching takes that one step further. Beeching’s body’s grace is an open sign of contradiction to the Global South Anglican realignment narrative. She is an evangelical Anglican theologian: she cannot afford to endorse congregational autonomy. Her interlocutor is Scott Lively, a person whose physical presence in Uganda also flat out contradicts the Global South Anglican narrative because he casts suspicion on whether homophobic prejudices in fact originated in what might be derisively regarded as the ‘primitive’ cultures of the Global South. Beeching’s exorcism flat-out contradicts the understanding of the Global South as ‘primitive,’ for if exorcism is a sign of prmitiveness, then the Global North evangelicals who tried to exorcise her would also be primitive. Her evangelicalism — rooted in a theological orientation based on Scriptural authority — flat-out contradicts accusations of latitudinarian liberalism.
In short, Beeching reveals where the Anglican Communion fault lines actually lie. The truth, as Beeching reveals it, is that the Global North-Global South imagined geography is a smokescreen. If there is anything that Beeching’s body’s grace illustrates clearly, the realignment has never really ever been about Global South, postcolonial agency, and Anglicans of colour. Postcolonial Anglicans, as Kwok Pui-lan and Ian Douglas have called people like me, have never really been addressed here — we have merely been spoken for and over.
Beeching’s closeness to the Archbishop of Canterbury is thus the ultimate gift. After all, one of Justin Cantuar’s major tasks is to reconcile this fragmented Anglican Communion. With Beeching coming out, the mist has evaporated, and the real fault lines finally have become crystal clear. As an Anglican of colour observing Welby’s talent for deep listening, his knowledge of the actual on-the-ground political realities in Africa, and his almost overflowing glee at welcoming those who regularly disrupt his own evangelical Anglican narrative, I expect great things out of this Archbishop of Canterbury for the Anglican Communion. After all, precisely because of Vicky Beeching’s body’s grace, we might see an Anglican Communion finally ready to tackle the deep-seated corporeal issues of race that have plagued us since the dawn of modernity.
This post was inspired by evangelical Anglican theologian and worship leader Vicky Beeching’s coming out story in The Independent. Read that first. Also, for a smart analysis of the reception of Beeching’s coming-out, read my buddy Ryan Cook’s post. For a roundup, Beeching has done it herself.
Those who knew me when I was on ordination track will know that I have admired Vicky Beeching’s work from the beginning. I was an intern at an evangelical Anglican church, although I think that’s a bit of a misnomer because while certain quarters of the parish espoused an evangelical theology (including the rector, at least publicly), the rector had been trained at Nashotah House and couldn’t exactly shake his Anglo-Catholicism. Those who worked with me at the youth group and second-generation ministry — why, yes, it was an Asian Canadian parish — joked at the time that I had a huge crush on Beeching. I was single, and I suppose when the worship leader played ‘Yesterday, Today, and Forever‘ for the first time, I was hooked. I bought her cd, I played it at odd hours at the church through its self-described world-class sound system, I learned how to play a ton of her songs on the piano, I followed her blog, and I may even have put some of the members of the youth group through my Beeching craze. I also told the worship leader at the time that when I was ordained, I’d like ‘Call to Worship’ to be played as the processional.
I also discovered that she had not one, but two, degrees from Oxford in theology. It made me wonder what on earth a theologian — yes, if you have an MA in theology, you are a master, and therefore an academic theologian — was doing in the buckle of the Bible belt in Nashville, a place that my father and I had visited as a sort of pilgrimage before I started grad school so that he could teach me how to drink beer before anyone else in grad school could. When we were there, we went to the Grand Ole Opry, ate fried catfish, and learned so much about country music that I bought the discs containing the ‘Bristol Sessions,’ the first music ever to be recorded that were considered within the genre of ‘country’ (although ‘gospel’ was probably a better description).
What on earth was an Oxford theologian doing there?
And on top of that, what was an Oxford theologian doing taking lunch pictures with Melody Green, calling Green her mentor, and claiming to have written several of the songs on Painting the Invisible on Keith Green’s old piano? I mean, of course, you could ask what the heck I was doing listening to Keith Green at the time as well — I do, for example, proudly own both the Silver and Gold volumes of The Ministry Years, Green’s complete oeuvre. It’s because at the tail end of high school, I attended a pastor’s conference at Focus on the Family — yes, the one of right-wing fame — where I met Dennis Jernigan, an ex-gay worship leader of ‘You Are My All in All’ fame (even though he wouldn’t identify as ‘ex-gay’). We didn’t talk long, but because I had zero experience chording on the piano, he advised me to listen to Keith Green to get ideas. I did, but apparently, Beeching got the real deal — she got to flesh out her ideas on Green’s piano.
Since then, I followed her blog, reading when she moved to San Diego and then had a mysterious sickness and then, ta da! right when I was starting my doctorate, she also became a doctoral student at Durham University. I remember the pictures she used to post of her very organized workstation — a stark contrast to my situation, I must say — and I’d read her blog where she boldly put up exactly what she was studying with regards to theology and the media, which is in stark contrast to how I operate as a blogger (seldom does my actual academic work make it onto my blogging). I remember the posts were thoughtful, especially when she said things contrary to what I’d hear all my other pious evangelical friends saying about taking sabbaths from social media — she rejected that, and defended her rejection like an academic boss. I saw less of her leading worship, although there was a fascinating promotional video for Eternity Invades put up where she took viewers on an urban tour of London, but I watched as she made it onto SkyNews, and then the BBC, and then was a contributor to the Guardian. I remember thinking — if she can do that as a doctoral student, then I’d better get my public act together as well.
I’d thought about writing her emails from time to time just to connect as colleagues because God knows she was affecting some of my career decisions as well; moreover, our career paths from popular evangelical ministry (hers far more large-scale, of course) to the academy would have made for good conversation. But I never did, and I suspect that’s because I didn’t have time. I’d click through the blogs, read her occasional Twitter and Facebook updates, but after a while, I suppose other things came up and her posts got buried, and I didn’t keep up, although I did read some time last year that she had come out in favour of same-sex marriage. I remember thinking, Hm. Theological studies can do that to you. I also did a happy dance when she wrote an acerbic reply to former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, on his loose usage of Christian ‘persecution’; I think that post seriously affected my reading of Carey’s Gate of Glory, not to mention shaping my perception of Carey’s tenure in Lambeth Palace.
Fast-forward, then. Justin Welby has become Archbishop of Canterbury; he was previously Bishop of Durham, which would have put him in the same diocese where Beeching was studying. I didn’t make the connection directly to Beeching, although I suspected that someone of Beeching’s intelligence, evangelical fervour, and public media participation would probably be on speaking terms with Welby. But I did know that Welby, having had much of his ministry formation at Holy Trinity Brompton and Alpha, would have had some familiarity with the same worship leaders who had formed Beeching: Andy Piercy, Matt Redman, Tim Hughes. I also suspected, listening to Welby’s opposition to same-sex marriage alongside his insistence on having ‘no track with homophobia’ (which, by the way, provides a fascinating lens through which to read Welby’s House of Lords speech against the marriage bill and his Synod speech soon afterward reflecting on ‘revolutions’), that he personally knew someone — and someone with evangelical weight — who was gay. He had said as much, relating his admiration for same-sex couples whose care for each other would put opposite-sex couples to shame (and thus revealing that he had not only read, but digested, his predecessor’s essay, The Body’s Grace). But there was something about the way he said it that made it sound like he had a secret to keep.
Well, it turns out that Beeching is gay and that Welby was one of the privileged few who knew about it. I’ll be damned.
As Zach Hoag notes on the Patheos Progressive Channel, this is huge for the Anglican Communion. It would, as he say, provide for a third way, precisely the sort of thing Welby has been talking about, between Christians whose theological articulations might either be ‘affirming’ or ‘non-affirming’ but love each other all the same.
But there is more: it means that there is a very real gift that evangelical Anglicanism can now bring to the church catholic. In particular, her coming out helps to clear the waters in this murky Anglican situation we have come to call the ‘realignment,’ in which certain parishes and dioceses in the United States and Canada pulled out of their dioceses and provinces over sexuality issues to realign themselves with ‘Global South Anglicanism.’
This post is getting too long. I’ll carry that over to the next post. I promise that it actually matters.
It has come to my attention that I need to respond to Archbishop Paul Kwong’s recent comments opposing the mass democratic movement in Hong Kong known as Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP) in a confirmation homily during St. Paul’s Church’s Theological Education Sunday. I am fully aware that by doing so, Kwong will say of me, ‘Whenever people see me or other church leaders, they will say, “We must speak up! Speak up at all times, on everything, understand? It is a must to fight.” For what do people have to speak up so much? [It appears] as if they wouldn’t have another chance, as if they were dumb otherwise.’
I suppose that ups the ante for my response.
For those who need to be caught up, OCLP is a non-violent movement that is attempting to bring deliberative democracy to Hong Kong. Tired of the Beijing central government’s repeated delays of universal suffrage for the election of the Special Administrative Region’s ‘Chief Executive,’ constitutional legal scholar Benny Tai, sociologist Chan Kin-man, and retired pastor Rev. Chu Yiuming have organized since January 2013 a series of events to have Hong Kong citizens deliberate over how they want to have elections, a constitutional guarantee in Article 45 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law. These events are known as ‘Deliberation Days,’ bringing together citizens from various aspects of civil society to put forward proposals for how candidates should be nominated and elected. These proposals were in turn put to vote recently on 22 to 29 June in an informal civil referendum. The idea is that the government — both Hong Kong’s government and the Beijing central government — should heed the voice of the people. If they do not heed the people, the idea of OCLP is to physically occupy the Central business district with acts of civil disobedience, forcing the government to hear the people. On 1 July 2014, some half million Hongkongers indeed hit the streets in protest that Beijing seems to be exerting a newfound authoritarianism over Hong Kong. Afterward, some 511 people occupied Central’s Chater Road in a rehearsal should OCLP have to happen; all were arrested, and the five organizers of the 7/1 Demonstration from the Civil Human Rights Front were detained the next day as well.
Archbishop Kwong has publicly opposed OCLP. Hong Kong’s left-leaning newspaper, Apple Daily, reports that Kwong has mocked the 7/1 Demonstrators and opposed OCLP because, simply put, it’s not what Jesus would do. The South China Morning Post attributes the change not so much to Christ, but to the fact that Kwong is currently a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a gathering that advises the Chinese central government on policy issues.
As the Primate of Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui, that is, the Anglican Province of Hong Kong, Kwong certainly has a lot of power. That I am an Anglican as well seeking to abide by the three goals of the Archbishop of Canterbury — to be involved in the renewal of the church through the renewal of prayer and praying communities, to be an agent of reconciliation, and to be a practitioner of evangelism and witness — places the onus on me to respect Archbishop Kwong as one of the 38 primates who demonstrate (albeit very imperfectly, as the Anglican realignment will readily show) the visible unity of the Anglican Communion. My comments are, as all my comments are of many of the Christian leaders with whom I have found myself in disagreement, meant to be respectful. As Justin Cantuar is teaching me, it means that ‘we must find ways to disagree agreeably.’
I hope that this does not make me a ‘river crab.’ For those who aren’t in the know, the term ‘river crab’ is a play on the word ‘harmonious society,’ an ideology propagated by the Beijing central government to form a peaceful China with minimal conflict as a space conducive to business transactions. Because this ideology tends to stifle dissent and democratic deliberation, this ‘harmonious society’ is often mocked by pro-democratic activists as anti-democratic, and the agents of collaboration are designated derogatorily as ‘river crabs.’ Although I recognize my communion with Archbishop Kwong and others who agree with him, such as his provincial secretary Rev. Peter Koon, what I have to say should position me as far from being a river crab, not least because I ultimately disagree with Kwong on the question of Occupy Central.
One has to take seriously the genre in which Kwong made his remarks. This was a confirmation homily given on a Sunday in a parish celebrating what it called ‘Theological Education Sunday.’ In this way, Kwong is doing theology, trying to educate those whom he just confirmed as to how they should live their Christian lives in the current Hong Kong situation.
Let me first, then, give a more lengthy summary of Kwong’s fuller homiletical remarks:
Kwong’s theological understanding of confirmation is that those who have given their lives to faith in Jesus Christ have in fact been chosen by God, not the other way around. For Kwong, this is a clear contrast to the recent assertions of political agency in Hong Kong, with 7/1 Demonstrators and OCLP participants demanding that they be able to choose. Such an emphasis on choice, Kwong argues, is inimical to an understanding of Christian life because, as he argues, individual, autonomous choice does not articulate the truth of our existence — which is that what we have is chosen for us by virtue of our non-individualistic existence in community. ‘See the church that we are in how beautiful it is?’ Kwong illustrates. ‘This is a gift from God above.’ Scaling out from St. Paul’s parish, he argues that the parish building is only possible because of the offerings of parish members, and those parish members are part of a church in the Province of Hong Kong, and the Province of Hong Kong is part of an 8,000,000-strong Anglican Communion around the world.
Driving the point always back to Hong Kong’s ‘chaotic’ political situation, Kwong then emphasizes that to be a ‘Christian’ is to be a follower of Jesus Christ, which means that one must consider how Jesus Christ would himself respond to Hong Kong’s political situation. He jokes that while many people ask, ‘Archbishop, how should Christians respond to this current situation?’ he feels that if he knew the answer, maybe he should be the Chief Executive! But because he does not know all the answers out of this complicated scenario, he keeps on asking that Jesus give him the wisdom to do something for this city of Hong Kong. In other words, as he says to the recently confirmed, Christians are not to think that by receiving confirmation, all problems will be solved, again contrasting this mentality with what he determines to be the simplistic theory that universal suffrage in Hong Kong will in turn solve all the food and housing shortages in the city. It’s not simple, he says, and it’s exacerbated by what he sees as the political polarization of Hong Kong, for when (as he says) he speaks one word in favour of China, he’s declared to be a river crab, but if one word critical, then he’s dipped his hand into politics.
Here, he returns to the lectionary with St. Paul’s struggle between two opposing laws of the flesh and the spirit in Romans 7. How do Christians deal with the challenges and difficulties of life? Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory in Jesus Christ. ‘How would Jesus think?’ Kwong asks. ‘If I were Jesus, what would he do?’
Turning to the Gospel, he emphasizes Jesus’ words to the disciples in Matthew 11: ‘Take my yoke and learn from me, for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ ‘I do not think,’ Kwong declares, ‘that Jesus would be like certain legislators in the Legislative Council always throwing things [in reference to fellow Christian, Wong Yuk Man, a pro-democratic legislator, physically throwing bananas, papers, and a glass cup recently in chambers]. I do not think that Jesus would be like certain demonstrators on the street using all sorts of vulgarities and obscenities on the government officials. I do not think that Jesus would use this sort of irrational violence to get his way.’ Kwong then makes fun of those who keep saying to him that he must make a response and that he must protest Beijing. ‘It’s like if I don’t speak I’m mute!’ he jokes. ‘But this isn’t the way it always has to be done. Look at Jesus before Pilate, as a sheep before its shearers is silent. Sometimes you don’t have to speak, but be silent. Sometimes saying nothing is saying something.’
Here’s the controversial part, then, the part where Kwong allegedly mocks pro-democratic activists for being ‘completely brainless.’ The larger context here is this: Kwong is saying that many of the recent activism is spurred on by people who lack inner peace. As Kwong puts it, the people who hit the streets tend to live in irrational fear, like one youth who was interviewed at the 7/1 Demonstration who said that he was seizing his last chance to demonstrate because he had believed the reports that Beijing would crack down and next year there would be no democracy. ‘If that’s really the case,’ Kwong quips, ‘I would have been out there with my staff and mitre too!’ Ditto another person he talked to who opposed the New Territories’ new towns on the grounds that all of the new houses would go to mainlanders — ‘Is every single house going to the mainland?’ Kwong mocks. ‘People have to buy those houses!’ Ditto another person who thought that Hong Kong was about to lose its autonomy, or indeed, the 511 occupiers at Chater Road who indeed thought that — Kwong asks rhetorically, to loud laughter from the congregation, since when Hong Kong has in fact been totally autonomous. The ‘brainlessness’ that Kwong attributes to these people is that they are themselves living in inner turmoil, which means that their brains are wired to listen to any fear-mongering without any critical reflection. This is, Kwong suggests, unbecoming of a people called to follow Jesus, whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light.
The solution to this is to learn from Jesus’ gentleness and lowliness. Without this gentleness and lowliness, Kwong says, comes the brainlessness that he critiques in current Hong Kong politics. But with gentleness and lowliness comes the ability to discern the real situation. With this identity given to us in confirmation, Kwong argues that the response to the current Hong Kong situation is to learn from Jesus, who is gentle and lowly. This is the Christian difference, he says: we Christians are different and do things differently because Christians have a completely different identity. Practicing that kind of Christianity, Kwong concludes, is how to have inner peace.
Kwong’s theology is certainly an Anglican one. By saying that, I am counting on Kwong to be completely wrong about the ‘brainlessness’ of the public sphere. Though I have affirmed my communion with Kwong and my recognition of his theological method as akin to mine, I have not yet given any indication of my critical assessment of Kwong’s remarks. That will come later in the post, and as I indicated earlier, my assessment is severely critical.
Identity in Community is Kwong’s attempt to bring the work of theologian Miroslav Volf, especially in his award-winning Exclusion and Embrace, into conversation with post-handover Hong Kong politics. As those who have read Volf will remember, Volf attempts to move beyond a theology of liberation to one that frames exclusion as the cardinal sin (especially in a 1990s context of ethnic cleansing) and embrace as the Christian practice that resists exclusion. For Kwong, Volf’s theology sheds light on Hong Kong because it provides a theological framework that can make for full reconciliation with churches in China, if not China itself, in the political turmoil of developing a distinctive political identity for Hong Kong.
Outlining a view of Hong Kong’s history as a British colony that transitioned into a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Kwong notes that there are different ways that Christian churches have approached Hong Kong’s political sphere. There have been, he notes, collaborators with the colonial regime; there have also been pro-democracy activists. As the handover was taking place and Basic Law was being drafted, there were a number of different approaches to the PRC. There are, for example, still democratic ‘social justice’ activists, even as there are those who prefer a path of ‘disengagement.’ The one he spends the most time on, though, are what he calls the pragmatists, partly because he agrees with them and implicitly wants to suss out an Anglican theology for them. Pragmatists, Kwong argues, are those who are happy to work with the new handover government and even the central government for the common good, even if those governments are themselves imperfect.
For all the talk about Joseph Cardinal Zen’s pro-democratic activities, Kwong traces the theological framework for the pragmatic approach to a 1989 Catholic pastoral letter given by Zen’s predecessor, Jean-Baptist Cardinal Wu. Titled ‘March Into the Bright Decade,’ Wu sets out ‘reconciliation’ as the primary task of Christians in Hong Kong, especially as the PRC gets ready to take over sovereignty. Applying the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, Wu exhorts the faithful to start with reconciliation in ‘small communities’ by studying the Word of God, gathering regularly, and being pluralistic — and then scaling up from those small communities toward the parish, then to the diocese, and then to the full catholicity of churches within the PRC. As Kwong observes in his analysis, the point here applies for Anglicans as well, for both Anglicans and Catholics share catholic union with churches located within the PRC. In order to bring about reconciliation with those churches where geopolitical divisions have rendered them asunder, Kwong reads ‘March Into the Bright Decade’ as advocating a pragmatic approach with the mainland.
Herein lies my disagreement with Kwong, at least in the outworking of his pragmatic theological framework. While many would automatically conclude from this reading that Kwong was a ‘river crab’ even before joining the CPPCC, I would contend that Occupy Central can be read as an application of Identity in Communion because of deliberative democracy. To be honest, when I first saw that Kwong had opposed OCLP, I could hardly believe my ears. After reading Identity in Community, I had been certain that Kwong had provided OCLP with the theological framework with which it was running!
After all, couldn’t one say that the actions of Benny Tai, Chan Kin-man, and the Rev. Chu Yiuming in bringing together citizens for deliberation a practice of Volf’s embrace, as it resists exclusion by bringing together disagreeing citizens to come up with a common good? With the small groups that mark the ‘Deliberation Days’ that are then scaled up into proposals to be voted on by the general public, couldn’t it be said that OCLP is in fact putting the subsidiarity of ‘March Into the Bright Decade’ into practice? With the openness of deliberation, have not the events of the last year placed democratic activists as agents of reconciliation? In other words, Occupy Central works by Kwong’s own theological formulation.
In fact, one could argue that Kwong’s homily fails by Kwong’s own theological framework.While ostensibly putting forth a Christian identity shaped by communion with other Christians, the most serious flaw is Kwong’s failure to engage with fellow Christians who disagree with him, sometimes not only pretending that they do not exist, but portraying the situation as if those who are pro-democratic cannot in turn be Christian. When Kwong suggests that the ‘throwing of many objects’ in Legislative Council was performed by non-Christians who lack an understanding of a Christian identity, is he not excluding Wong Yuk Man from his baptismal identity as well as excluding Wong’s pastor, Senlok Christian Church’s Rev. Timothy Lam Kwok Cheung, from his ordination? When he finds that pro-democratic activists are individualistic and fail to live out their identity in community, what is he saying about the leadership of the Rev. Chu Yiuming, whose public work in Chai Wan by fighting bus fare and public utility hikes and advocating for an Eastern Hospital has always been ‘for the people’? When he says that it’s ‘brainless people’ with no inner peace who join these democracy movements, what is he implying about Joseph Cardinal Zen’s hunger strikes and democratic activism? Kwong may be exhorting the newly confirmed to find their identity in community. The problem is that if indeed all who disagree with Kwong are not only ‘brainless,’ but lack a ‘Christian identity,’ then this community is marked by the very exclusion that Kwong purports to resist.
The implications of these questions are serious for Kwong’s interaction with the rest of the Anglican Communion. Imagine, for example, a Desmond Tutu — then Primate of South Africa — who was silent in the face of apartheid. Imagine if anti-segregation activists in the Episcopal Church who read Martin Luther King, Jr’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ from the altar of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral had kept their peace. Imagine if William Temple had never written his treatise Christianity and Social Order to advocate for the working class and their right to collective bargaining and guaranteed employment in the mid-twentieth century. By calling pro-democracy activists ‘non-Christian’ by virtue of their putative individualism and ‘brainless’ fear, is Kwong disregarding his identity in communion with these Anglicans?
I can see the rebuttal a mile away, by the way: but are things as dire in Hong Kong as to invoke the legacies of King, Tutu, and Temple?
The answer is yes.
In a jab against the 511 young protesters who were arrested on Chater Road, Kwong quips about their complaint that they were denied food and timely access to toilets, ‘Why didn’t they bring along their Filipino maids to the march?’ Here, Kwong has played right into Benny Tai’s hands. In a lecture on ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, Tai makes clear that one of the very reasons why OCLP advocates for universal suffrage is because if quite literally every person in Hong Kong had a vote, the very marginalized ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, including these Filipino maids, would be given political agency. In fact, as Tai himself well knows, Basic Law’s Article 24 has been twisted in such a way as to deny temporary foreign workers and children of Chinese mothers not registered in Hong Kong their basic human right to right of abode in Hong Kong, even if they have lived in the region for seven years. The Filipino maids should indeed have come, then, precisely because universal suffrage is stop the exclusion of the least of these and embrace them as part of the theological-political community in Hong Kong. This would, after all, been the way of King, Tutu, and Temple.
This, then, gets to the deep theological point of OCLP: when the Hong Kong government and central government is found to exclude the voice of the people from its deliberations, the people will resist those exclusions by non-violent civil disobedience in order to provoke an embrace. This people, as Tai has made clear, are not only the ethnic Chinesepeople of Hong Kong, but the entire diverse community that composes the whole Special Administrative Region. This is why when those acts of civil disobedience happen, they will also be acts of love and peace. They are, after all, acts of reconciliation.
Given this, it is not only strange that Kwong presents himself as such a ‘river crab.’ It is absolutely bizarre that he does not lend his staff and mitre as OCLP’s front leader.
Todd’s description of these explosive ‘sex-related’ items as ‘abortion, homosexuality, and not-so-hot-button items’ is more of a reference to what ‘liberal Christians’ might think of these items: no-brainers that ‘conservative Christians’ allegedly use to turn the clock back in the Dark Ages. Churl will appreciate the medievalism in that last statement. In Todd’s words:
Unfortunately, “hot-button” sex-related issues always draw the most intense media attention. Journalists generally focus on how conservative Christians go against the secular grain in opposing abortion, homosexuality, prostitution, divorce, sex outside marriage and contraception. Liberal Christians, on the other hand, have different degrees of openness to all these things, as well as to euthanasia.
In Todd’s word, ‘liberal Christians’ are allied with a secular agenda to liberalize sexuality. By contrast, ‘conservative Christians’ are conceptualized as going ‘against the secular grain’ in their lack of ‘openness to all these things, as well as to euthanasia.’
You could say that Sterne’s reply is an attempt to defuse the bomb. Echoing Todd’s ‘unfortunately,’ Sterne attempts to move the conversation about sexuality away from the media because for Sterne, the media broadcasting of these issues reduces conversation to soundbites and continues to marginalize those who still experience ‘pain’ from the overly public conversation. Sterne proposes that the proper place to do theology around these explosive issues is within the church, where pastoral care can be provided for people who are hurting. In this way, each person’s individual struggles can be dealt with individually, confidentially, and privately, and each person can be directed personally to find his or her (or xyr) journey converging with the matrix of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I recognize that Sterne’s ‘public theology’ is very much a work in progress. Check this out:
I am not against public theology, but problems arise when that public discourse happens in the media. When it comes to abortion, homosexuality, prostitution, divorce, sex outside marriage, contraception or euthanasia we are always talking about individuals. These people — made in the image of God — have stories more complicated and beautiful than soundbites can capture. We’re talking about people who need theology that can meaningfully meet them as they are and where they are, which is precisely what we all need. With no disrespect to the media, this simply cannot be found through that medium (nor on a blog for that matter!). The limitations of the medium can unintentionally dehumanize the people of “the issues.”
This, not the hot-button ‘sex-related’ issues, is the crux of Sterne’s argument. Some might say that it’s a cop-out, a way of addressing controversy without taking on the issues head-on.
I don’t. But I do think that Sterne contradicts himself about ‘public theology.’
It is difficult to understand, for example, the meaning of the sentence: ‘I am not against public theology, but problems arise when that public discourse happens in the media.’ What could this possibly mean? If ‘public discourse’ does not happen in the ‘media,’ then where does it happen? If one is not against public theology but is against public theology happening in the media, then how is one not against public theology? If one finds both the media and blogging problematic, then why does one take the time to address Douglas Todd’s media representation of ‘liberal Christianity’ on a blog?
This contradiction of views about the ‘public’ becomes even stranger when Sterne applies it to ‘the church.’ Arguing that ‘the medium through which people can encounter theology sturdy enough for the roads they’re traveling is the church,’ Sterne calls for the revitalization of the spiritual practice of ‘pastoral care.’ Sterne implies that ‘pastoral care’ is private because ‘this ancient practice requires trust,’ which ‘won’t be developed in overly condoning or condemning soundbites.’ Citing Aelred of Rievaulx’s Pastoral Prayer, Sterne makes a very strong case that denominational formulas about the hot-button issues ‘does not mean it [a denomination or church] knows where to stand with a person.’
The problem with conflating ‘the church’ with the private practice of ‘pastoral care,’ though, is that the ‘church’ is a public assembly. As New Testament professor Sam Tsang emphasizes over and over and over again on his blog, the word ekklesia simply referred to an assembly, a gathering of the city’s people to build the polis. The early Christians adopted the word ekklesia to refer to the gathered assemblies of the people brought together by Jesus Christ to build the city of God in the various cities of the Roman Empire — and beyond. Cross-referencing Dom Gregory Dix’s Shape of the Liturgy where he argues that these gatherings could be analyzed as ‘private’ before they became ‘public’ under Constantinian rule simply won’t do, either. If one follows Dix, what could be said to be private about the early ekklesiai was the Eucharistic liturgy, where those who had not yet been baptized would be sent away before those in Christ partook in the Body and the Blood of Christ. That’s not what Sterne is talking about, though. Sterne is talking strictly here about pastoral care and its location within the practices of the church, the publicly gathered people in the name of Jesus Christ.
Now, it is true that there came to be developed a very confidential practice in the life of the Christian church: confession. It’s so confidential that there are both canon and civic laws around the confidentiality of confession. Roman Catholic priests speak of the ‘seal,’ the absolute secrecy of everything that penitents confess to them, so much so that they practice simply forgetting all the juicy material that they are told. In Canada, confession in non-liturgical contexts went to court, all the way up to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1991, to determine whether everything confessed to a pastor could be confidential in a court of law. The answer was no – for example, murder confessed to a pastor outside of the sacramental context of confession — which, in a non-liturgical and non-sacramental context doesn’t exist — is fair game for the secular courts. So too, the whole craziness of the child sex abuse scandals that hit the Catholic Church and is now coming down through the evangelical pipeline has resulted in a requirement to let the civic authorities know whenever such crimes are perpetrated. Finally, even though confessions are themselves confidential, the example of even Pope Francis going to confession before serving as a confessor demonstrates that confession is not just about the individual but about the people of God getting right with God as a people. This makes sense in a big way: the whole idea of confession as a sacramental practice comes from the medieval penitentials that prescribed rites for confession and absolution — rites that, by the way, made their way into Protestantism via the Book of Common Prayer and in the current alternative service books — which again means that the point of confession is not a ‘me and God’ thing, but a ‘people of God’ thing.
In other words, while it might be wise for pastoral care to be confidential, the point is that it’s never private. In some ways, confession is a public act, not in the sense that all your secrets get spilled to the public, but in the sense that the city of God is built on confession, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
The trouble is that Sterne seems to think that the ecclesial public has always been separated from the secular public in which the press works. In a collection of essays on religion, critical theorist Michel Foucault observes that these publics are really both based on ‘confession.’ The only difference is that while the ecclesial public prescribed confession for Christians as a path by which humans are united to God, the state has elicited confessions to exert its subjugating power over citizens, especially by getting citizens to govern themselves (this is what Foucault famously called ‘governmentality’). What’s even more complicated is that this confessional state has often used the church as its arm of moral regulation: in Canada, the story has become familiar in the First Nations residential schools, anti-buggery laws, and the contested legacy missionary attempts in various Chinatowns. That the term ‘Christian privilege’ is the talk of the town in educational circles in British Columbia suggests not an anti-Christian orientation on the part of radical secular activists, but the need to talk about the effects of the past on the present when it comes to the church’s complicity in making a certain kind of Canadian governmentality.
The trouble is that even though the church’s fall from privilege might actually help the church to stop getting co-opted by the state, this process isn’t exactly happening quietly. In each of the examples that Todd raises — abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, other ‘not-so-hot-button’ issues — journalists have been drawn to portrayals of conservative Christians as they have contested government policy positions, attempting to retain its pastoral power over the state.
But if the church were in fact to be the church, what Sterne might propose may not be pastoral care, but ecclesial performativity. As ‘classical Christians’ insist that they have been against abortion from the beginning — say, by rescuing infants in the Roman Empire from parents who abandoned them — theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas has insisted that a truly pro-life stance requires that the church live out an alternate society in which abortion would be made unnecessary, not simply to require the state to outlaw it. Such a church would provide an environment in which having children could actually be imaginable in today’s flexible economy. Having understood St. Augustine’s City of God as framing the arrogant city of the pagans as founded on rape culture (think Lucrece in Rome), such a church would work tirelessly in solidarity with feminist activist groups to contest rape culture — which means that we should have heard churches speaking out when Rehtaeh Parsons’s suicide broke in the news and when Canadian universities’ orientation days featured underage rape chants. If indeed there is a case to be made for euthanasia about ‘quality of life,’ then if our churches really do oppose it, our churches must be welcome spaces for the disabled, the critically ill, the mentally challenged, and the aged. In much of this, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has provided a remarkable model. Without backing down from some of the socially conservative statements that the Church of England’s House of Bishops has made, Welby has gone out of his way to meet with LGBTQ+ activists and making statements that ‘we must have no track with any sort of homophobia,’ even going to lengths to get anti-homophobia curriculum into British schools.
In other words, Sterne may be correct to say that the media only tends to report ‘soundbites,’ but if the church were to actually speak a truly public theology, it would have to be through actions, not words. This is because at the end of the day, theology is performative — it isn’t so much about what we say and think, but what we do, that demonstrates who the God is in whom we claim to live and move and have our being. Given the public assembly of the ekklesia, the performances of the church, right down to the acts of confession, are never private acts. They are public, indicating to the world what the Christian church in fact believes about love for neighbours and enemies and the seeking of the common good.
It is on that public note that we look forward to what Sterne will say about the ancient spiritual practices in his sixth installment.
When I first began hearing about St. Peter’s Fireside a few years ago, I had heard that they had on staff with them an intellectual — some said a ‘genius’ — and that his name was Roger Revell. I was told that we would have fun talking. With these posts and ongoing conversation among Douglas Todd, the St. Peter’s Fireside staff, and yours truly (as Stanley Hauerwas is said to have said to Catherine Pickstock at their first meeting chronicled in legend, ‘Hi, I’m the turd in the punchbowl!’), I feel like this is an odd, yet providential, place to have met, though I am no genius. It has been certainly been a pleasure, and I hope that my sentiments are reciprocated.
And Pickstock just looked at Hauerwas…
Roger Revell has outdone himself this time. In what appears to be the most complex and intricate post in the St. Peter’s Fireside ten-part blog series response to Douglas Todd’s ten-point primer on ‘liberal Christianity,’ Revell gives an ingeniously complicated answer as to whether ‘classical Christians’ oppose evolutionary biology. This is in response to Todd, who has written emphatically on how liberal Christians disavow an embarrassing fundamentalist insistence on creationism:
Liberal Christians are definitely not Creationists (neither is every conservative Christian). They don’t believe schools should teach God formed the world in six days, etc. Instead, liberal Christians are environmentalists who have expanded Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theories into a metaphysics, often called process theology or panentheism. Some of liberal Christianity’s biggest names are evolutionary theists such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, John Cobb, Michael Dowd, Sallie McFague, Ian Barbour and John Haught. Liberal Christians want to learn from scientists and want scientists to learn from philosophy and spirituality.
Revell has a complicated answer. Giving a nod to geographer David Livingstone’s Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders and Adam’s Ancestors, Revell correctly notes that when Darwin first published his findings, he was embraced by some of the evangelical luminaries of the time. Siding with Todd, Revell then shows that there is in fact a spectrum of views on evolutionary biology among evangelical Christians, from practicing biologists to diehard creationists. It’s for this that I have to give a standing ovation to Revell, for he has rightly moved the conversation away from an evolution v. creation food fight into a complex conversation with very blurry battle lines. I’m sure that Evolving in Monkey Town‘s Rachel Held Evans would also be pleased with his nuanced picture.
Revell’s protest is thus not about evolution — it’s about what Todd calls an evolutionary ‘metaphysics.’ For Revell, that smacks of ‘atheistic naturalism,’ a theology that would see little use for an actual ‘personal, powerful, and present God of the Bible’ (emphasis Revell’s). Reading Todd’s ‘process theology’ and wholehearted ’embrace of evolution and science’ as proposing a radically natural theology, i.e. where empirical observation of nature is all that can actually be known, Revell rejects an ‘evolutionary metaphysics’ on the basis that it would be radically secularizing, disposing any need for the personal God with whom classical Christians insist on relating.
The only problem with Revell’s protest against this kind of natural theology — the kind that both Karl Barth and Stanley Hauerwas also pushed back against in their Gifford Lectures (an endowed lectureship in Scotland on natural theology) — is that it’s not actually what Todd is talking about. To call, say, the process theology of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, an ‘atheistic naturalism’ is really to miss the point. As Todd himself clarifies, his reference to an evolutionary metaphysics is about panentheism, emphatically not a radically empirical naturalism, and the integration of theology with science is much more about what Pamela Klassen has called ‘scientific supernaturalism,’ an attempt on the part of liberal Protestants (in Klassen’s own analysis) to use science to understand supernatural, psychic, and paranormal processes. What Todd is saying is that if liberal Protestantism were the X-Files, they wouldn’t be the skeptics — they’d be Agent Mulder.
Put this way, the old stereotypes about ‘liberal Christians’ as agents of radical secularization fall apart. As Klassen reminds us, this means that ‘liberal Christians’ take seriously the supernatural, so much so that they want to understand it deeply using scientific vocabularies and methodologies.
The question is if this modus operandi can be described as classical.
I put the ‘SJ’ after Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to underscore a point: he was a Jesuit. In The Phenomenon of Man, de Chardin lays out precisely why he’s using an evolutionary approach to develop a ‘process theology,’ that is, a scientific account of the gradual evolution of human consciousness of the supernatural. For de Chardin, that’s a perfectly valid theological move because early medieval theologians once used Plato and Neoplatonism to do their theology, only to have that discarded by late medieval scholastics for Aristotle. If philosophical paradigms can shift like that in theological methods, then why not experiment with an evolutionary approach?
Experimental though de Chardin was, another Jesuit scholar, Henri de Lubac, SJ, would affirm that de Chardin’s approach is definitely classical. In his classic Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, de Lubac demonstrates that what it means to be Catholic from the church fathers is to be able to incorporate all kinds of philosophical traditions into Christian thinking by focusing them all onto the central person of Jesus Christ. As with de Chardin, de Lubac argues by the end of the book that this surely means that modernity, though condemned outright by Pius IX in the Syllabus of Errors, can in fact be incorporated into Catholic thought because incorporating different modes of thinking is what it means to be Catholic. (You see why Pius XII also condemned this stuff in Humani Generis — the irony was that the next two popes had many of these guys as the theological experts at the Second Vatican Council!) As Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor puts it, this should be called a Catholic modernity, that is, a scientific, evolutionary rationality whose thinking is focused on the God who becomes flesh in Jesus Christ. It’s no wonder that the exorcist in The Exorcist was based on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
Given this, I’d encourage Revell to revisit his disavowal of an ‘evolutionary metaphysics.’ Is he sure that all evolutionary metaphysics will do is to lead down to the path of atheistic naturalism? After all, if de Chardin, de Lubac, and Taylor are correct, ‘liberal Christians’ have nothing to worry about as far as ‘naturalism’ is concerned. Instead of tossing the supernatural, they’d be way more invested in what de Lubac called the surnaturel, the suspended middle between nature and grace, than most other Christians. In other words, an ‘evolutionary metaphysics’ may be more classically Christian than anyone expects.
And so it was when UBC’s Graduate Faculty Christian Forum invited evolutionary paleobiologist Simon Conway Morris to speak in 2009. Aside from being Austin Powers’s doppelganger, Morris unexpectedly presented a metaphysics from his work in evolutionary paleobiology — i.e. the fossil record — that had its grounding in the work of the Inklings — J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, etc. For an evangelical crowd, this was certainly unexpected — who could have predicted, for example, that the supernatural worlds of Narnia and Middle-earth would be commensurate with evolutionary paleontology? But if we had read de Chardin and de Lubac, this would have been no surprise, for it’s in the deep unknown of primal history where science converges with poetry, song, and art. A Catholic modernity is no naturalist fundamentalism, no disenchanted iron cage. It is a return to a world of enchantment where scientists confess that nature may well be a channel of divine grace, an urge to reveal that the classical Christian faith does not only confess a personal Creator God but where that God’s Spirit continues to hover over the waters of the deep and renew the face of the earth.
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit, and they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.
God, who taught the hearts of your people by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, send that same Spirit into our hearts, that we may always be truly wise, and ever rejoice in his consolation, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
This we pray especially for Alastair Sterne as he posts the next piece on ‘abortion, homosexuality, and not-so-hot-button issues.’ He’ll need it.
My hat’s off to Roger Revell for his third installment in the St. Peter’s Fireside ‘classical Christianity’ responses to Douglas Todd’s liberal Christianity primer. Whereas the series started out more combative than was necessary, Revell has managed to strike an ecumenically conciliatory tone, finding common ground between Todd’s liberal Christianity and his own classical Christianity in the practice of social justice. Although this ecumenism is precisely what I’ve advocated in my previous responses (see here for the first and the second), I won’t try to take credit here. As Johann Sebastian Bach used to write at the end of his compositions, SDG, i.e. Soli Deo Gloria.
My post will attempt to draw out the implications of Revell’s post for Christian practice in Vancouver. Once again, Revell is responding to Todd, who wrote:
Jesus was not status quo. He turned the established order upside down, de-emphasizing hierarchy. Instead of promoting “family values,” he asked followers to leave behind their parents. Progressive Christians note how he befriended outcasts, the poor, women, children and tax collectors. He advocated simple, equal, communal living. He also pressed for social and economic justice, for which he paid the ultimate price, execution. Many liberal Christians believe Jesus embodied the divine power of creative transformation.
As Revell suggests, practice is what matters. Noting that the practices of saints as diverse as St. John Chrysostom and John Calvin focused on the poor, as did a spectrum of Roman Catholic, evangelical, ‘creedal,’ Anabaptist, and liberal Protestant practitioners, Revell finds that liberal Protestantism does not have ‘the market cornered’ for putting Jesus’ ‘transformative values’ to work. He’s right, of course. As Benedict XVI put it in Spe Salvi, faith is performative, that is, what you do demonstrates what you actually believe.
Another way of putting this, of course, is that talk is cheap. Revell lists example after example of good works done by the historic Christian church as well as a diversity of ecclesial communities. But he also makes a jab at modern Protestant fundamentalism that I think is well worth revisiting:
If one pays attention only to certain “fundamentalist” Christian groups from the 20th century, this point can be missed. Fundamentalism, especially the American variety, sometimes boasts a poor track record on issues of social justice. In some such groups—as I know from personal experience—the term “social justice” is highly suspect. However, when this peculiar movement is situated in the broader context of church history, its muted concern for Jesus’ social vision can be seen for all its oddness.
In other words, while classical Christians have a long track record of social justice activism, fundamentalists are odd because they do not. One question to ask is why not? But because the answer has already been adequately provided in places like George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture, there’s little need for me to delve into an in-depth history here, except to say that it was the fundamentalist movement’s battle with modernist mainline Protestants that made them withdraw so much into their private congregations in the 1920s that it became embarrassing – so embarrassing that Carl Henry, an evangelical theologian who was no friend of liberals, had to write a book titled The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, castigating fundamentalists for not caring about important issues in the 1940s, like, say, worldwide military conflict, the ecological crisis, and the nuclear arms race. For all of that, you can do your homework and read that abundant literature, starting with Marsden and going to, say, Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason. Revell seems to be aware of all this work too, and so should all of our readers.
The more interesting question to ask, though, given that talk is cheap, is:what implications does Revell’s understanding of classical Christian practices of social justice have for churches in Vancouver?My answer to this question will suggest that St. Peter’s Fireside is pretty much standing on the shoulders of giants.
In 2007-8, for example, one of Douglas Todd’s big stories concerned Tenth Avenue Alliance Church, now known as Tenth Church Vancouver (and not to be confused with this story). At that time, Tenth’s attempt to renovate their building came under contestation from the municipal government because of their feed-the-hungry program and shelter. Although their social service plans had originally been helped by another department in the government, they were required by the city to get a social services permit. This produced an outcry among various religious communities from various traditions across Vancouver, and it led to the formation of an interfaith coalition called Faith Communities Committed to Solidarity with the Poor (FCCSP). FCCSP held neighbourhood meetings and press conferences for a year demanding that the city back down from their requirement for theological reasons — indeed, the same reasons that Revell discusses in his post. In a document titled ‘The Social Vocation of the Church’ posted on the website of Streams of Justice (another organization we’re about to talk about), FCCSP laid out what Revell would call a ‘classical Christian’ argument that within orthodox streams of Christianity, as well as most other religious traditions, serving the poor was a central element of faith practice that could not be separated from worship. If the city was requiring Tenth to get a permit, it meant that the city was doing theology and colonizing Tenth’s religious practice. After a year of FCCSP’s work, the city backed down – pretty much because of FCCSP’s classically Christian argument. In turn, since FCCSP, Tenth has itself also been articulating to its congregation the importance of the classically Christian spiritual disciplines, including the practice of social justice, so much so that its senior pastor, Ken Shigematsu, has written a whole bestselling book on the topic, God in My Everything.
And yet, to bring up Streams of Justice suggests that what ‘social justice’ means is beyond even Revell’s conception. For Revell, contemporary examples like World Vision, the Mennonite Central Committee, and evangelical relief agencies are adequate illustrations for the practice of justice. But for Streams of Justice, that only scratches the surface. Founded in large part by Hebrew Scripture scholar Dave Diewert, Streams of Justice takes a biblically (read: classically) prophetic stance against colonization in Vancouver. In technical political language, this means that Streams of Justice doesn’t just participate in social services, but in the politics of decolonization. With the buzz in Vancouver’s Christian circles around the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, one might think that this means that churches have to own up to their historical record of participating in the injustices of Canada’s residential schools to ‘kill the Indian within.’
Yes and no.
The politics of decolonization would say, yes, of course, churches have to own up to their historical wrongs. But no, that’s not all there is to it because there are also contemporary colonial policies to be contested, not least of which is the recently federally approved Northern Gateway oil pipeline through British Columbia that is being contested by several First Nations. Chinese Christians in Action’s Bill Chu has also recently been working with First Nations against a resort being built on their traditional lands. Streams of Justice chalks up Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside policies to be colonizing as well, often leading to community fragmentation in the name of scattering a skid row population when in fact it takes away informal networks of support for people who depend on it. For these classical Christians, social justice is not just a matter of service – it’s a matter of looking at the whole structure of cities, economies, and political formations and contesting the powers of colonization.
In Vancouver, this also hits close to home with the property market. True to form, St. Peter’s Fireside’s clergy have been inadvertently rolled into these politics. On June 10, Alastair Sterne’s wife, Julia Nicole Sterne, blogged about how to deal with disappointment, using her own frustration with Vancouver’s high-priced, hyper-competitive property market as an example:
Alastair and I have been in the market for a new home for almost a year. Almost. A. Whole. Entire. Year. We have never been in want, but we are now in a season of wanting; wanting a permanent home, wanting a place for Ansley and any other babies to grow up, wanting some stability and financial responsibility and to make something our own. In this past year we have made multiple offers with nothing secured.
This provoked a cranky response from Garth Turner, an investment advisor who was a Member of Parliament for nine years who took care of a lot of economic policy. Aside from highly misogynistic remarks about Julia — which, by the way, all classical Christians should contest — the post chalks up Julia’s disappointment to just another day at the market, where rational investors look at the ‘free money’ to be had in Vancouver’s property market and rationally capitalize on it. For geographer Nick Blomley, though, this kind of thing isn’t just market rationality — it’s colonialism that displaces those who can’t afford the increasingly unaffordable housing in Vancouver and that — mirroring Streams of Justice’s decolonization politics — fragments the social networks of the Downtown Eastside. For St. Peter’s Fireside, this is becoming a personal experience of colonization. The question is, what solidarities will these ‘classical Christians’ discover in their practice of social justice? What will it have to do with their engagement in issues of affordable housing as a human right? racial politics? indigenous sovereignties? ecological justice? Exciting times.
In other words, Revell has given Vancouver’s public sphere an excellent rundown of how what he calls ‘classical Christianity’ — a longstanding orthodox tradition that ranges from the early church to Chrysostom to Calvin to Wilberforce to the present — converges with ‘liberal Christianity’ in its practice of social justice. What I’ve attempted to do in this post is to bring Revell’s insights home. Don’t be surprised, then, if you see St. Peter’s Fireside exploring the politics of decolonization in Vancouver. It would be very much part of classical Christianity to do so.
I’m looking forward to Revell’s next post on evolution, which I am sure will be just as insightful as his thoughts on social justice.
There’s no fun like theological fun. Once upon a time, I thought that only the Hong Kong public had so much theological fun in their secular presses. With new debates everyday across the Hongkonger public sphere about the relationship among biblical exegesis, political theology, and grassroots democratic activism, it seemed like those of us in North America were missing out.
Now an evangelical Anglican church is responding. In a ten-part series, St. Peter’s Fireside is putting on its blog a ten-part series on ‘classical Christianity,’ an attempt to correct Todd from his putative misperception that liberal Christianity is the via media. Against ‘liberal Christianity,’ they wave the flag of ‘classical Christianity,’ which is apparently ‘the ancient faith practiced by the majority of Christians for the last 2000 years’ that is actually the ‘middle way between aggressive, anti-intellectual fundamentalism and flaccid, lukewarm belief.’ One can safely assume that the latter is Todd’s ‘liberal Christianity.’ In fact, they say that ‘there are some things that Classical Christianity can affirm in each of Todd’s 10 points’ while emphasizing that ‘there is also much that must be added to, or rejected completely.’
The trouble is that these assertions to represent the position of ‘classical Christianity’ seem — perhaps unintentionally, but inadvertently — to be claims that these blog posts speak for the monolithic, uncontested (evangelical Protestant) alternative to liberal Christianity (read: Protestantism) for the rest of the church catholic. One wonders if this is an example of argumentative over-reach. Perhaps they mean to say that they have articulated an ‘evangelical’ theology — that would be good and fair. But aside from the slight problem that we do not know whether Todd is in fact an Anglican, were Todd to have articulated a ‘liberal’ broad church theology and St. Peter’s Fireside an ‘evangelical’ one, an Anglo-Catholic voice certainly still deserves to be heard. I am, of course, not a particularly good representative of Anglo-Catholicism, and at this point, I need to disavow representing anything. If anything, consider me an interlocutor with some Anglo-Catholic commitments, although I really feel uncomfortable calling myself an Anglo-Catholic because I am in fact a Chinglican.
The point is that however the authors of these forthcoming blog posts claim to speak for classical Christianity, that one wonders whether they have taken the totality and complexity of the church catholic into consideration suggests that they need an interlocutor. I’d be happy to give that — and only that, with no claims to representativeness — a go. And here’s my main point: I’m not sure it’s always productive to see ‘liberal’ and ‘classical’ Christianity as binary opposites.
This first post by Mike Chase is a great example of why these ‘classical Christians’ need an interlocutor — and hopefully, more than one. The fuss that Chase makes in this post is over Todd’s claim that a liberal Christianity espouses ‘co-creation with God.’ Here are Todd’s claims in their entirety:
While some Christians think of God as a supernatural “Almighty” being who can do whatever “He” wants, liberal Christians believe God has feminine and masculine qualities; operates as much like a force field as a person and needs creatures to help achieve divine aims. Since the 1960s, it’s been common for liberal Christians to talk about being “co-creators” with God.
Chase has a three-part rebuttal – very trinitarian, I must say, after Trinity Sunday. First, a classical Christian God is a sovereign person; second, God’s primary gender is masculine; and third, God is autonomous and does not need co-creators. I recognize that much of this delineation seems owed to the way that systematic theology is taught in seminaries. To call this view of God ‘classical’ suggests that there are multiple positions through which God is approached, some of which owe more to arguments from antiquity (which makes them ‘classical’) and others that take a more ‘progressive’ view (which makes them ‘liberal’ or ‘modern’). That is to say, there’s a sense in which one set of arguments are classified as ‘classical.’ This is opposed to another set of arguments that is ‘liberal.’
It’s these neat categorizations of the ‘classical’ versus the ‘liberal’/’modern’ that is perhaps getting Chase into trouble. After all, if it is true that the ‘co-creator’ view of humanity is a ‘liberal’ theological conception that must be opposed by an affirmation of God’s autonomy, then is Chase disavowing that John Paul II represented anything resembling classical Christianity? After all, the controversial point inLaborem exercensis precisely that humans are ‘co-creators’ with God. That this point was contested by Stanley Hauerwas in his provocatively titled ‘Work as Co-Creation: A Critique of a Remarkably Bad Idea’ doesn’t actually advance Chase’s point. John Paul II built on the tradition of Catholic social teaching in which popes since Leo XIII — themselves drawing from ‘classical’ theology — to say that human work in Genesis was an act of ‘co-creating’ with God. Hauerwas’s disagreement lay in his critique of Vatican centralization, i.e. John Paul II’s ‘co-creation’ theology was too vague and too much thought up in the armchairs of the Vatican to be of any use to people who actually live off wages for their work. If Chase is challenging the point about ‘co-creation,’ then the real question is whether John Paul II should be considered a ‘liberal’ or a ‘classical’ Christian. Never mind that the pope is Catholic — it is right and just that Anglicans should engage Catholic social teaching, not least because the current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby is one of its primary exponents. The question is, are they suggesting that Catholic social teaching is not representative of ‘classical Christianity’?
Then there’s also the point that Chase makes about ‘co-creation’ as a remarkably bad idea. For Chase, ‘God is always the initiator and sustainer of creative work,’ which makes humans more properly ‘sub-creators’ than ‘co-creators.’ This critique is ironic, for this gets at the heart of what the classical question about Arianism was all about. In a remarkable account of why the fourth-century heretic Arius thought and did what he thought and did, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams argues that what was at stake in the Arian controversy wasn’t simply whether Jesus was actually ‘God’ or ‘sub-god.’ The reason that orthodox theologians like Alexander and Athanasius argued so strongly against Arius’s claims that Jesus was a ‘sub-god’ was that this had massive implications for how Christians thought of their participation in the divine life. If what it means to be ‘in Christ’ is to be simply be joined with a ‘sub-god,’ then God the Father is sufficiently distant and unknown to us — i.e. as Williams points out, Arius was arguing for a conservative position with a distant, unknowable God. The orthodox rebuttals were far more creative and — dare I say it, ‘liberal’ — than anything Arius could have asked or imagined — if Jesus was indeed fully God, then participation in the life of Jesus was nothing short of theosis, that is, as Athanasius once put it, God became man so that man could become God. That is the orthodox view of Jesus. To insist that humans are ‘sub-creators’ is to dangle dangerously close to Arius’s condemned conservative theology. In turn, the ‘co-creation’ view may be more classical than either Todd or Chase have imagined.
This finally leaves us with Chase’s nervousness that Todd is propagating a feminist theology. Granted, Chase’s original post deals with the feminine metaphors for God in Scripture, although Chase insists that a classical view of God is that God is masculine. One wonders what Chase might do, then, with Julian of Norwich. When Julian describes Jesus as maternal and calls Jesus ‘Moder Jhesu,’ is Julian being ‘liberal’? The point about Julian of Norwich also extends to Todd’s other claims. When Julian utters her ‘All shall be well’ because God holds the world — the ‘little thing’ of creation — is Julian describing a ‘force’ or a ‘person’? Is this sovereignty Chase’s voluntaristic assumption that God can do whatever he wants, or is it a maternal sovereignty of care where, in the words of another classical prayer, God sends forth his spirit, and they are created, renewing the face of the earth? Is a fourteenth-century English visionary better classified as a ‘liberal’ or ‘classical’ theologian?
In short, if indeed Chase is advancing a ‘classical’ theology, one wonders if it must always oppose, reject, and contest Todd’s liberalism. Might it not be better to point out that Todd’s ‘liberal Christianity’ is ironically classical? After all, the reactionary view to Todd’s liberalism leads Chase dangling close to theological paths that he might explicitly disavow. Can’t we be more classically catholic about the whole thing? This is precisely what I meant when I said that these bloggers seem to need an interlocutor – our catholicity is practiced by conversation and communion, reminding each other that common ground can be found in unexpected places.
It’s with that sort of catholic anticipation that we look forward to a second rebuttal to Todd on the authority of Scripture.
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people, and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit, and they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.
O God, who taught the hearts of your people by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, send forth the same Spirit into our hearts, that we may be always truly wise, and ever rejoice in his consolation, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
A prayer for Syria is not up for discussion. We have been silent because we are not interested in a conversation on this Thing. We pray instead, crying for help as one with the people of God to the living God himself.
On this Saturday, we pray in solidarity with the church catholic, with Pope Francis who has gathered us, and with the various communions gathered in solidarity with them. We pray as one, with one voice, that the madness of war and the twisted logic that we must kill to make peace would be shattered with the peace of Christ.
The instructions to Catholics are that they might pray the Rosary. To the rest of the Christian church, let it be clear that this is not merely a Roman Catholic thing. The Rosary belongs to the church catholic because the church is postured with Mary, pondering in her heart the message of the angel, the joy that fills her cousin Elizabeth’s bosom, the declaration of the Magnificat, the rejoicing of the shepherds, the sword that will pierce her heart, and the boy she bears sitting in his Father’s house. We pray today in solidarity with Mary that the wisdom of her prophetic contemplation might be gifted to us, that the prayer of the church with one voice might shatter the darkness of the violent logic that plagues our world.
The call for an Anglican charism is also clearer than ever. Already, Justin Cantuar has called for solidarity with Christians in the Middle East, listening to their voices and not rushing in haste to war. As a bishop who did reconciliation work at Coventry Cathedral, he knows war well. Not only did he make peace in wartorn areas in Africa where his life was in danger three times, but his seat was in a cathedral that knew war, that itself had been bombed, that itself carried in its very edifice the scars of war.
Etched into those walls are the words: Father forgive.
And thus, the Coventry Litany of Reconciliation is the prayer of the Anglican Communion in solidarity with the church catholic as we pray in communion for peace in Syria, for war never again, for the reconciliation of Christ to be displayed visibly in the world:
All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class, Father Forgive.
The covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own, Father Forgive.
The greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth, Father Forgive.
Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others, Father Forgive.
Our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee, Father Forgive.
The lust which dishonours the bodies of men, women and children, Father Forgive.
The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God, Father Forgive.
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
Abba, forgive, forgive us our failings.
Pour out your mercy, and heal our shattered souls.
Some time ago my friend Churl began a series of posts here on A Christian Thing discussing his frustration at the Evangelical tradition in which he was raised and his attraction to Roman Catholicism. Of course, Churl has always recognized these are not the only options: there is Orthodoxy, of course; and on the Protestant side, there are options like Anglicanism and Lutheranism. Alongside Churl’s posts, Chinglican has been chiming in with his defence of Anglicanism, but the Lutheran on this blog has been remarkably silent. That’s not to say I haven’t any opinions on the subject. I do. In fact, Churl and I have discussed the topic on a number of occasions outside of the blog (you know, in real life). But while I have many opinions, I have much less time in which to write them down.
Part of what has delayed an online response from me has also been the recognition that it would necessarily mean examining Catholic doctrine in detail. Indeed, talking about joining any church must, by definition, include a very real hashing out of doctrine, because it is doctrine that distinguishes one church from another. Such discussions can be very confusing to many people. They also, by definition, tend to make people angry, because if you say you believe X, you must also say you reject Y.
But I have told Churl I would write a response for the blog. So I will. And this is my response: I’m too damn Catholic to be Catholic.
That might sound flippant or even nonsensical. It isn’t intended to be. “But what does it even mean?” you ask. I’ll explain, but before I do, let me explain what I do not mean: I do not mean to say that I think Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism are similar enough that I can simply “act” Catholic while remaining Lutheran.
To be sure, Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism share many things in common. I would even argue that, of all Protestants, Lutherans have the most in common theologically with Roman Catholics. We both confess the efficacy of God’s grace poured out in the Sacraments. We both believe Baptism is for infants (that cuts out most Evangelicals). We both believe in the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion (that cuts out everyone else). Sure, some “high church” Anglicans believe in Transubstantiation, but it’s hardly representative of the church at large; in Anglicanism you can also find lowest of the “low church” symbolists, and consubstantiationists, and subscribers to Calvin’s “mystery” language (with its mysterious “spiritual (but not physical) real presence”). It’s notoriously difficult to talk about what Anglicans believe because there seems to be no authoritative voice in the church. Who speaks for Anglicans? No one and everyone. Is it Thomas Cranmer? Shelby Spong? J.I. Packer? Or perhaps it is Katharine Jefferts Schori or Justin Welby?
This kind of anything-goes theology doesn’t jive with Catholic or Lutheran sensibilities; we instead assert that there are authoritative voices who determine what doctrinal teachings are and are not allowed (by now it should be clear that by “Lutheran,” I mean “confessional Lutheran”). Lutherans and Catholics both accept that the Scriptures are God’s very Word and are therefore authoritative for faith and practice. Likewise, Lutherans and Roman Catholics both recognize the witness of the Church historic as normative for the interpretation of these Scriptures: we each assert, for example, the primacy of the three ancient creeds (The Apostle’s, the Nicene, and the Athanasian). If you deny these texts, you can be neither Catholic nor Lutheran.
Indeed, the first Lutherans saw no disagreement between their faith and the faith of the Catholic Church down through the ages. They write, “This is about the Sum of our Doctrine, in which, as can be seen, there is nothing that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church Catholic, or from the Church of Rome as known from its writers” (AC 21:5). They believed themselves to be faithful to the historic Church’s teachings even as they rejected theologically errant innovation that had arisen in their own time. “Our churches dissent in no article of the faith from the Church Catholic,” they write, “but only omit some abuses which are new, and which have been erroneously accepted by the corruption of the times, contrary to the intent of the Canons” (AC 21:10).
To be sure, Catholics and Lutherans still disagree which of them truly remained faithful to the historic Church’s witness. But we both agree that this historic witness (whatever it is) is normative for the Church up to and including the present day. From the Lutheran perspective, The Book of Concord represents an attempt at codifying a normative, indeed, authoritative interpretation of the Scriptures and the Christian faith, based on biblical exegesis and informed by appeals to the Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils. Roman Catholics, for their part, define a much larger authoritative tradition, including not only the seven ancient councils but also fourteen others in later times, as well as a number of other assorted works like the Catechism and ex-cathedra pronouncements such as Munificentissimus Deus (which, in 1950, made the Assumption of Mary binding dogma for all Catholics).
Let me refer to just one of these authorities: The Council of Trent. To be Roman Catholic means to accept these extraordinary dogmata (ie, doctrines declared necessary by the church to be believed by all); failure to accept even one such dogma places one outside the Church (for such is the Magisterium of Roman Catholicism). To Trent then:
“If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified… let him be anathema” (Session 6: Canon 9). And again: “If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins… let him be anathema” (Session 6: Canon 11). And once more: “If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake… let him be anathema” (Session 6: Canon 12).
These anathemata apply to me, for I believe that “men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4” (AC 6). Indeed, it seems doubtful that one could read these passages as anything but a deliberate condemnation of Lutherans.
And this is a key point: it is the people they condemn. “Let him be anathema.” In the Lutheran Confessions, we condemn errant teachings frequently enough; for example, “We condemn quite a number of other errors of the Anabaptists [ie, other errors in addition to errant views on baptism]” (AP 9:51). But we do not focus our condemnations on the errant. We draw our doctrines narrow in accordance with the Scriptures; but, equally in accordance with the Scriptures we draw our theology of the Church, the Body of Christ, wide. The visible church on earth is a manifestation of the Body of Christ; but it is not synonymous with the Church Catholic. I repeat, no church body stands in a one-to-one correlation with the invisible Body of Christ.
For, as Roman Catholics and Lutherans both teach, the visible church is made up of Christians as well as “evil men” who do not truly believe. If the visible church were, then, synonymous with the Body of Christ, we would have to say that both the believers and the unbelievers in this earthly fellowship were members of Christ’s Body. As a Lutheran, this seems to me obvious error. Only believers are truly members of the Body of Christ; only believers constitute Christ’s Bride, the Church.
And that goes for all believers, regardless of denominational affiliation. Lutherans do not believe one need hold membership in a Lutheran church in order to be a member of the Body of Christ. That doesn’t mean we diminish Lutheran distinctives; we believe our Lutheran doctrine to be true and that, consequently, the doctrine of others is wrong. But one such doctrine we uphold is the idea of the Universal Church—the belief that the Christ’s Bride is the invisible fellowship of all believers in Christ. “The Church is not only the fellowship of outward objects and rites,” we confess, “but it is originally a fellowship of faith and of the Holy ghost in hearts” (AP 7:4).
By contrast, Roman Catholics threaten non-catholics with damnation over topics like the primacy of the Pope’s authority [“This is the teaching of catholic truth, and no one can depart from it without endangering his faith and salvation” (Vatican I, Session 4 Chapter 3:4)]. There are too many things in Catholicism declared necessary unto salvation, too many things upon which membership in Christ’s Body has been made contingent. John Donne lamented this piling on of dogmata well: “All things are growen deare in our times,” he wrote, “for they have made Salvation deare; Threescore yeares agoe, he might have been saved for beleeving the Apostles Creed; now it will cost him the Trent Creed too” (Sermons Vol. 6, No. 12).
Roman Catholics have long been committed to affirming St. Cyprian of Carthage’s words in a very narrow way: extra Ecclesiam nulla salus—“outside the Church there is no salvation.” And by “Church” they have historically meant the visible Roman church. Indeed, as late as the 20th century, Pope Pius XI could write his in encyclical Mortalium Animos: “The Catholic Church alone is keeping the true worship. This is the font of truth, this is the house of faith, this is the temple of God; if any man enter not here, or if any man go forth from it, he is a stranger to the hope of life and salvation.”
It is in this sense that I say I am too damn Catholic to be Catholic. I believe too strongly in the invisible Church, the “Universal”—which is what “Catholic” means—Church to believe Roman claims that their church is the only true Church. I cannot believe that lack of membership in any particular visible church body makes one “a stranger to the hope of life and salvation,” as Pius XI wrote. No, it is not our membership in visible churches that is necessary for salvation, but rather our membership in the invisible Church—in Christ’s Body, the fellowship of all believers. This is something Lutherans believe, teach, and confess; I cannot say Roman Catholics teach the same—or at least they didn’t until very recently (more on that in a second).
It will not do to simply suggest we reinterpret these condemnations, or to say that our understanding of the Councils’ words have evolved over time. Indeed, Vatican I strictly condemns such reinterpretation of accepted doctrine: “The meaning of the sacred dogmas is ever to be maintained which has once been declared by Holy Mother Church and there must never be abandonment of this sense under the pretext or in the name of a more profound understanding” (Vatican 1, Session 3 Chapter 4:14). Saying we understand better (ie, have a “more profound understanding” of) the dogma than its framers is thus forbidden. And more forcefully: “If anyone says that it is possible that at some time, given the advancement of knowledge, a sense may be assigned to the dogmas propounded by the Church which is different from that which the Church has understood and understands, let him be anathema” (Vatican I, Session 3 Canon 4:3).
That does not mean the Roman Catholic Church has not, in fact, attempted at times to “clarify” (or, more honestly, reinterpret) some of these older doctrines. Indeed, Vatican II provided a very welcome new understanding of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. Roman Catholics no longer condemn Christians outside the Roman church; instead, they declare that all the baptized have the “right to be called Christian” (though those outside Rome miss some of the benefits given solely to Christ’s Church, which is still defined as the Roman Catholic Church). So too Roman Catholics have in recent years softened their anathemata against the Lutheran understanding of justification by faith. While these things are to be applauded, there nevertheless appears to be a disconnect (to my mind, at least) between the original intent of The Council of Trent—and other texts which drew the definition of Church so narrowly—and Vatican II’s more recent pronouncements. Indeed, this reinterpretation of authoritative texts seems to directly ignore Vatican I’s warning about assigning to established dogma “a sense… different from that which the church has understood.”
And therein lies the problem: either the Roman Catholic Church was right when it narrowly restricted assurance of salvation to being a member of the visible church and accepting all Catholic doctrine (including the primacy/infallibility of the Pope, the assumption of Mary, the condemnation of Protestants at Trent, etc.); or it is right now when it grants the possibility of true Christians existing outside the visible church. If one attempts to fix the problem by saying our understanding of the dogmata in question has simply evolved—that we understand them better now than their own formulators did—we come up against Vatican I’s condemnation: none are to interpret accepted dogma in a way contrary to the Church’s historic understanding. So if we say we can, through new methods of interpretation, make Trent and Vatican II speak with one voice, then we must still reject Vatican I’s condemnation of such reinterpretation. The Tradition to which the Roman Catholic Church attaches authority, then, contradict itself; and if this Tradition—this Magisterium—is the grounds which support the Roman church’s declaration to be the one true Church on earth, I for one therefore find the foundation less than firm.
I agree that one must seek the Church in order to find Christ. She is His Mother, and through her we are brought into communion with Him. But do I believe the Church is to be equated with the visible Roman Catholic Church? No. Instead, I must agree with Martin Luther:
“Therefore he who would find Christ must first find the Church. How should we know where Christ and his faith were, if we did not know where his believers are? And he who would know anything of Christ must not trust himself nor build a bridge to heaven by his own reason; but he must go to the Church, attend and ask her. Now the Church is not wood and stone, but the company of believing people; one must hold to them, and see how they believe, live and teach; they surely have Christ in their midst. For outside of the Christian church there is no truth, no Christ, no salvation” (LW 52:39-40).
This is the Catholic Church. This is the Universal Church—the company of believers. I will not abide any visible church drawing the broad boundaries of the invisible Church more tightly than does God. The dogmata of the Roman Church do just that, and so I reject them; I’m too damn Catholic to be Catholic.
I apologize if anyone found the above reading difficult or insulting. I do not mean to hurt feelings, nor do I question the sincerity of my Christian brothers and sisters’ faiths. But there can be no honest ecumenical agreement where there is not also honest recognition of disagreement.
Do I think I am in the right, theologically speaking? Yes. And I therefore necessarily think that others’ opinions are wrong. But I will forever count upon the mercy of Christ as the means of salvation, not my intellectual capabilities nor anyone else’s (whether used rightly or wrongly). “It does not depend therefore on man’s desire or effort [or, we might add, man’s denominational affiliation], but upon God who has mercy” (Romans 9:16). I count Roman Catholics and Anglicans and Baptists and all manner of other Christians fellow members with me in the Body of Christ. Wherever the Good News of Christ is preached and believed, wherever the Holy Spirit enters into the hearts of the faithful, there the Catholic Church is. There my sisters and brothers are.
 The early Lutherans, while asserting the primacy of Scripture, never suggested that we may approach Scripture in a vacuum, apart from the witness of the Church throughout history. Indeed, as John R. Stephenson writes, the “authors of the Formula of Concord sharply forbid any unbridled exegesis of the inspired text;” Christians are bound by the ancient Church’s witness. For more on this, see Stephenson’s article “Some Thoughts on Why and How Creeds and Confessions Exercise Authority over Lutheran Christendom” (originally delivered at LCC/LCMS/ACNA dialogues, recently published in Lutheran Theological Review 25 (2013):60-73 here).
 To be sure, encyclicals do not have the same authoritative status as some other texts in Roman Catholicism. But Pius XI’s words demonstrate a long-standing Roman interpretation of what St. Cyprian’s ancient words mean.
 “All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ’s body, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church. Moreover, some and even very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church… Nevertheless, our separated brethren, whether considered as individuals or as communities and Churches, are not blessed with that unity which Jesus Christ wished to bestow on all those to whom He has given new birth into one body… For it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help towards salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained” (Unitatis Redintegratio 3).
 The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification affirms that Lutherans and Catholics have a much closer “consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification” now than in the past, and that “the remaining differences in its explication are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations” (5).