Roger Revell has hit the nail right on the head. There is nothing like full-bodied orthodox Christianity that elicits a rousing ‘Amen!’ from across the spectrum of those who are part of the diverse chorus of what St. Peter’s Fireside calls ‘classical Christianity.’
Revell’s brilliant response takes the wind right out of the sails of Douglas Todd’s suggestion that ‘conservative’ Christians are too heavenly minded for earthly good. Here’s Todd:
This might shock those who assume the main reason Christians become Christian, and embrace the Easter account of the resurrection of Jesus, is to be guaranteed a spot in heaven. But belief in heaven, or otherwise, is not a deal-breaker for entry into this camp. Some liberal Christians don’t think it is possible to have individual consciousness after death. That said, most liberal Christians appreciate how the story of Jesus’ resurrection exemplifies how “death is not the final word.” Even if they don’t believe Jesus physically rose from the grave, they buy into the metaphor. They accept Jesus’ followers had mystical visions of him after his death and that the love people show on earth lives on eternally after their body dies.
One might have expected that Revell’s ‘classically Christian’ answer would take us back to St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians where he castigates the Corinthian church for entertaining the idea that the bodily resurrection may not have happened. Certainly, within evangelical circles, a certain reading of this passage has yielded a cottage industry of apologetics (one thinks, for example, of Frank Morrison’s Who Moved the Stone?, Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict, and Lee Strobel’s Case for Christ) seeking to demonstrate from putatively incontrovertible evidence that Jesus in fact was raised bodily from the dead and that classically orthodox Christianity must be believed. For these people, ‘belief in heaven’ and the physical resurrection are indeed ‘deal-breakers,’ and a response from this camp would have dragged Todd through the coals for a seeming denial of the necessity of Jesus’ resurrection.
Not so Revell. Quite obviously influenced not only by N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope (which he cites), as well as Wright’s tome The Resurrection of the Son of God (which he is too modest to cite), Revell’s first argument is that Christians who are too heavenly minded for earthly good are in fact shirking their Christian obligation to be present and alive as, in the words of St. Irenaeus, ‘human beings fully alive’ and that ‘liberal Christians’ (say, Rob Bell) as well as their secular counterparts (say, Jean-Jacques Rousseau) are right to be disgusted at these freeloaders mooching off the rest of us who are working for the common good. As Revell explains, the only problem with applying this logic to all classically-oriented Christians is that that’s not how the logic classically works. Emphasizing that classically-oriented Christians are not completely agreed on what it means to share in the risen life (say, whether or not to venerate the saints who have fallen asleep but are still alive, or whether the Bible talks about only about life after death or a life after life after death), Revell suggests that one point of convergence is that, according to Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, the prize of eternal life is precisely what makes life in the present possible, exciting, and creative, making even prophetic statements in physical martyrdom (say, St. Perpetua or Dietrich Bonhoeffer) completely possible. Revell ends with a bang: life after life is not a ‘pleasant and fanciful idea’ but the path of full-bodied Christian discipleship.
Here, Revell is certainly influenced by orthodox theologian John Zizioulas’s Being as Communion. At the risk of oversimplification (I’m not going to deal with the whole hypostasis and ousios thing, for example, because it gave me a splitting headache), Zizioulas argues that human planes of existence can be divided between the ‘biological’ and the ‘ecclesial.’ At a basic ‘biological’ level of living, people tend to be concerned about their own survival, literally stayin’ alive (ah, ha, ha, ha, ha…sorry…). But what happens when one gets baptized is that one gets immersed into the risen life of Jesus Christ — one quite literally, and not just metaphorically, participates in the resurrection. Because the ‘death factor’ gets taken out of the equation, one’s existence is not merely biological and oriented toward survival; it is now ecclesial and eucharistic. In other words, one continues to participate in the risen life of Christ by sacramentally eating his flesh and drinking his blood. This doesn’t just happen at an individual level. It happens together with the whole church — the ekklesia — which makes one’s existence ecclesial, which means that one’s existence is not merely oriented toward biological survival, but toward communion with the other.
Drawing from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran theologian from a completely different theological tradition (and indeed, historical period!) from Zizioulas, this means that a Christian mode of social relations is marked by the sanctorum communio, the communion of saints. Indeed, Bonhoeffer goes as far as to say that the church is Christ literally and actually made manifest in the world: ‘Now the objective spirit of the church really has become the Holy Spirit, the experience of the “religious” community now really is the experience of the church, and the collective person of the church now really is “Christ existing as church-community”‘ (Sanctorum Communio, p. 288). As Revell suggests, a Christian is cut out to be the best kind of citizen, ‘the type who forgoes personal interest and entitlement because in due course, she will exist in a place devoid of want and lack.’ That’s because a Christian’s primary locus of existence is in the church, which is not a private voluntary association, but a public display of a new mode of social relations marked by always being for the other and not for one’s own survival.
Which brings us to that scandalous thing that Revell talks about halfway through his post: the veneration of the saints.Except that it’s not very scandalous…
In fact, that Revell seems almost unfazed by the scandal that his mentioning of this practice might cause indicates how central the veneration of the saints is to putting the resurrection to work. After all, when in the Synoptic Gospels Jesus defends the resurrection over against the Sadducees’ denial of it, he does it by saying that the reference to the God of the burning bush as the ‘God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’ indicates that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are not dead but alive, for God is God of the living, not the dead. What this means is that saints like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their descendants as numerous as the sand on the seashore and the stars in the sky, are not only alive, but can quite literally continue to intervene in the present world. A ‘classical Christian’ view, embraced by Catholic and Orthodox Christians especially, takes this radically catholic view, that the communion of saints not only comprises the living and the dead in Christ, but that all are in fact still alive by virtue of their participation in Christ’s risen life. That Jesus himself shows that this can be a validly Christian practice from the beginnings of the Scriptural tradition suggests that while Protestants may have historically found this practice problematic (idolatry! one hears them cry), every Christian should in fact find this practice relatively uncontroversial.
The beauty of politics called ‘church,’ as theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it, is that not everyone has to agree with precisely how to articulate this sensibility. Indeed, Revell’s ‘classical Christianity’ makes room even for Todd’s liberal articulation of a spiritual resurrection, a rare feat in the currently polarized Christian theological landscape. If there is room in the Body for Protestants who cannot endorse the resurrection practice of venerating the saints, then there is certainly also room for those who may articulate the resurrection differently without actually denying its effects. After all, Todd does not deny the resurrection: even if some of Todd’s ‘liberal Christians’ do not believe in the resurrection, ‘they still buy into the metaphor’ and agree that ‘death is not the final word.’ While full-bodied ‘orthodox’ Christians might chafe at this, Revell is correct not to take Todd to task explicitly for this because he recognizes the reality that theology has never really only been about articulation — it’s about practice.
What Revell finally shows, then, is that ‘classical Christianity’ simply cannot be ideological. If indeed theology is about practice, then the comparisons between ‘classical’ and ‘liberal’ Christianity do not end with how Todd and St. Peter’s Fireside express their theology. What has happened over the course of our conversation, then, is that what started out as a debate between two polarized ends of the theological spectrum have been brought together by convergences in practice — the doing of justice, the doing of the contemplative life, the doing of confession, the doing of silent presence, the doing of the resurrection — have trumped whatever divisions we might have. As Pope Francis once declared, ‘ideological Christianity’ is a ‘disease.’ We must work together.
Now the theological discussion is at an end. We have come together more closely than we ever thought possible. We have discovered our unlikely affinities in the sanctorum communio. The liturgical formula from which we get the word ‘mass’ is Ite, missa est. After having partaken of the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood in a deep sharing in the risen life of the God who became human, the people are dismissed. Goforth in the name of Christ, the deacon sometimes says. Or, go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Or, go forth into the world rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. Or, let us bless the Lord.
I am taking another break from my Anglicanism posts. I can assure you that parts 4, 5, and 6 are all slowly forthcoming. Now that I’ve deconstructed Anglicanism in parts 1, 2, and 3, I’m sure that many readers are wondering what the hell I’m still doing styling myself as an Anglican. I have reasons, I can assure you, almost as good as the reasons that Albus Dumbledore consistently hides from Harry Potter throughout the series.
But with the recent rulings by the Supreme Court on gender-neutral marriage (here’s Windsor and here’s Perry), I am frankly annoyed by the way that the conservative arguments against gender-neutral marriage have been framed. In fact, I am also annoyed by the progressive side of things, but that’s another discussion. But to make my point clear, watch this interview that CNN’s Wolf Blitzer conducts with the Alliance Defense Fund’s Austin Nimocks. Sure, Nimocks gives some (deeply flawed) reasons as to why Proposition 8 is still the law of the land. But basically, his position is: my position is less popular than David Boies’s. So I’m probably right.
Here’s how the argument is framed: we (presumably evangelicals) are taking an ‘unpopular position’ and so we are beingvilified.
That’s almost like saying: what makes a position right is that it is unpopular.
Um, no. No, no, no.
But I’d like to point out that this sort of ‘unpopular’ framing is oddly popular in my anecdotal experience with many evangelical, fundamentalist, and charismatic Protestants, whatever political or theological position they hold on the left or the right of the spectrum. It’s almost because something is unpopular that we hold to that view. And this is ironic, precisely because the same evangelicals, fundamentalists, and charismatics with whom I have interacted will say that truth is not a popularity contest. Because truth is not up to the will of the people–instead, it is objective–then it is often said that truth is about holding tight to a position known to be timelessly true.
And then always comes the punchline: I know that I am arguing for the unpopular position, so I will be persecuted.
Hm. Are we so sure that truth is not about a popularity contest when we say that? It seems like it still might be. It’s just that while everyone else might go for the ‘popular’ position when the contest is over, you’re going for the ‘unpopular’ position.
Note, then, that this ‘unpopular’ position logic is what works its way into so many glib evangelical, fundamentalist, and charismatic statements about truth. Most of these statements are pretty contradictory. Check this out:
Person A might say: I believe that homosexuality is a sin. I realize that that is an unpopular position to take, and I am wiling to face persecution for that. Of course, as I’m reading my Facebook news feed, I then see right underneath Person A the statement of Person B: I do not believe that homosexuality is a sin. I realize that that is an unpopular position to take, and I am willing to face persecution for that. (Of course, what’s really annoying about Person A and Person B is that they actually have a position on ‘homosexuality.’ What exactly are you taking a position on? On whether ‘homosexuals’ actually have a different sexual orientation? On how sexual orientation is constructed? On how modern sexuality owes a lot of debts to medical discourses circulating in the late nineteenth-century? On whether the disruptions to identity proposed by queer theory are a good thing? On what the Catholic Church’s ‘objective disorder’ language means? On whether they should be discriminated against in the workplace? On whether they should be allowed hospital visitation for their partners? On whether they should have to pay estate taxes if one partner dies? On whether they can get married? On whether they can adopt kids? Hm. Kinda complicated to have a ‘blanket position,’ no?)
Heh. But let’s move away from sexuality. I’d like to propose that this sort of diseased ‘unpopular position’ logic works its way throughout every evangelical, fundamentalist, and charismatic debate under the sun.
OK, let’s go to the neo-Reformed debate. Neo-Calvinist says: In today’s evangelical culture, Calvinism is not a popular position among the seeker-sensitive, emergent, and evangelical feminist stuff out there. I realize that my Calvinism is an unpopular position to take, and I am willing to face persecution for that. And then, coming right back at the neo-Calvinist is: In today’s evangelical culture that is totally saturated by the Gospel Coalition and all the cool neo-Reformed guys with so much certainty, my delight in mystery, my evangelical feminism, and my attempts to make the Gospel as relevant to seekers is an unpopular position to take, and I am willing to face persecution for that.
Ditto women’s ordination. Complementarian says: In today’s feminist culture, my belief that men and women have complementary roles where men are the leaders and women are the helpers is not a popular position to take, and I am willing to face persecution for that. Egalitarian comes back and says: In today’s ridiculously patriarchal and sexist culture, especially in the church, I support women’s ordination because men and women are created equally in the image of God and have the same gifts. I realize that that’s an unpopular position, and I am willing to face persecution for that.
Ditto parents trying to control youth groups more tightly because they oppose the youth pastor. Parents say: In today’s culture of disrespect, we want to have more control over our kids than the youth pastor, and I realize that that’s an unpopular position to take, and I am willing to face persecution for that. Youth pastor comes back: In today’s complete cultural disregard for the church, we need to have more tight-knit relations among youth in the church, and I realize that that will be unpopular with our parents, and I am willing to face persecution for that.
WHAT IN GOD’S NAME IS GOING ON???
It’s like, if you invoke the ‘I am holding an unpopular position, so I am going to be persecuted’ card, then that’s what’s going to take the cake.
I refuse to believe that this is how our conversation, collegiality, and communion as evangelical, charismatic, fundamentalist, progressive, liberal, catholic, and orthodox Christians has to work. If there is any point of diseased thinking in our churches that needs to be ruthlessly refuted, it is likely this piece of logic.
If this is how all of us do theology now, it can be fair to say that we are all failures as theologians. (Heh. In today’s anti-intellectual climate, I realize that using the word ‘theology’ is unpopular, and I am willing to face persecution for it. GAH.)
So let me give two suggestions. First, why don’t we stop this ‘unpopular position’ logic, and actually do theology as Christians? This would mean listening to someone like Karl Barth when he says that it’s simply inappropriate for dogmatic theologians to have theological ‘positions,’ as if that’s what theology is about. It is not. Christian theology happens to be about Jesus Christ who reveals God in the form of his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Here’s an idea: why don’t we start there when we do theology? After all, that’s the way out of most of these ‘unpopular position’ loops. If we really do claim to believe in an objective reality as Christians, it’s not that what makes something objectively true is its unpopularity. It’s its relation to what Christ has revealed about the Father.
Second, if we really want a negative theology, maybe we should actually read some mystics. Check out Pseudo-Dionysius’s Mystical Theology some time. It’s a lot of this negative theology–God is not this, not that–but he’s not doing it because he’s trying to find the most unpopular position possible and hold to that. Pseudo-Dionysius wants to raise us to the highest point of union with the Triune God, stripping us of our projections and wrapping us into the objective reality who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This, by the way, is why you’ll never find that we on A Christian Thing take ‘popular’ or ‘unpopular’ positions. It’s because if that’s the way that we do theology, then we will have betrayed our very existence as Christians, which means that it would be illegitimate for us to say that we have a Christian thing. We are Christians, and frankly, we couldn’t care less how popular that is. For all we know, it might be more popular than we’d like to think.
Taking yet another break from the Anglicanism posts (I trust that Churl has received a somewhat adequate answer in part 3), I’d like to write some reflections on a sermon that I heard at a free church last Sunday. I don’t have any interest in attacking either the church or the preacher, so I will keep both vaguely anonymous and instead critique the individual sermon as it stands on its own. Because I’m starting to feel a growing conviction that silence in the face of hearing these sorts of things is a form of implicit assent from a passive congregation, I’d like to speak with a critical tone. My aim (once again) is not to attack the church or the preacher, but rather to say that the church would have been better served if the preacher had not preached what I’ll be calling in this post an ideological sermon, that is, a sermon that uses the text as a vehicle to push an abstract political agenda. Because this church employs a congregational polity, I’d like to state for the record that I am not a voting member of this congregation and thus my statements are not representative of the congregation; they should be read, in many ways, as those given by a sympathetic outsider. However, as a baptized member of the church catholic, I’d like to appeal to our greater solidarity in the communion of saints as I voice my critique.
To demonstrate my complete solidarity with this free church despite my sacramental status as a confirmed Anglican layperson (which I’ll discuss more in part 4), I’d like to first express my deep thankfulness for the work of this congregation’s second-generation English-speaking ministry pastor. Not only is he one of my longtime friends, but he is an incredibly thoughtful evangelical working within a free church tradition with young people and their parents, skillfully navigating the tricky political waters that often come with that terrain. While I sometimes disagree with his exegesis of biblical texts (he often waxes a bit too individualistic for my liking), his careful engagements with pastoral care in the congregation and his sincere efforts to engage the neighbourhood around him with more than simply token words of appreciation are simply inspiring. It is fascinating and joyfully exciting to watch the growth of his pastoral work, as well as the work of the people who compose that church in their music, hospitality, and theological reflection, and as a Chinglican, I am glad to attend their services on a semi-monthly basis. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, and my hope is that even as we speak of ecumenical reconciliation movements between Anglicans and Lutherans with the Roman Catholic Church, we might also someday be able to talk more deeply about the reconciliation of the free church with communions that are increasingly recognizing the wrongheadedness of their embeddedness with the state. In this, I am also expressing my sincere gratitude to free churches as a whole for their witness against the church’s entanglement with the state, and I am hopeful that we will all one day be fully reconciled in Christ.
It’s in that context that I’d like to express my utter dismay at the sermon last week, a homiletical piece that was delivered neither by my friend nor by anyone who grew up at the church, but by an older white man in a prominent position at a local evangelical institution here in the Pacific Northwest.
Let me first unfold the piece as I heard it. I will follow my summary with a critique.
The sermon was purportedly an exposition of the first psalm in the Psalter. As the preacher ran out of time, his focus was on the first three verses, which I’ve reproduced here in the New International Version, which he was using:
1 Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers, 2 but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night. 3 That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.
The sermon was itself a spirited critique of compartmentalization, the notion that one’s faith should be kept in certain spaces but should not exert any influence on the secular parts of one’s life, including one’s schooling, employment, or romantic relationships. The danger of compartmentalization, the preacher continued, was that it allowed evangelicals to be defined by the culture surrounding them, particularly through the media (and especially, as he was quick to point out in this second-generation Chinese Christian congregation, by video games). As a result, he argued that evangelical faith’s influence in the culture was slowly waning, that marriage rates were dropping, and that evangelicals themselves did not know right from wrong, which was apparently visible in their voting patterns, as they would often vote in favour of sexual liberalization. The preacher’s diagnosis came courtesy of the psalmist: evangelicals have stepped too long with the wicked, stood too long in the way of sinners, and sat too long in the company of mockers, often to the point at scoffing at the values in their own faith. (He then added, ‘If you are rolling your eyes at me right now, then you’re probably sitting with the scoffers too.’ He said that exactly as I was rolling my eyes.)
He then proposed two solutions to this evangelical erosion. First, he noted that in contrast to the acts of stepping with the wicked, standing with sinners, and sitting with mockers, it was important for evangelicals to spend much more time with fellow evangelicals who shared their faith values and could ask those going astray from these values how their thinking worldviews were consistent with evangelical faith. However, he quickly noted (and this was his second point) that the psalmist proposes a much more radical solution: it is to be rooted in the ‘law of the Lord,’ that is, the Word of God as revealed in the literal Scriptures, and to meditate on it day and night. In other words, while community is nice, the preacher argued that it was incumbent on individual evangelicals themselves to read the Bible, to meditate on it day and night, and then to be individual trees planted by streams of water, yielding their individual fruit in season, keeping their individual leaves from withering who prosper individually in all that they do. In short, God calls individual evangelicals to forsake the crutch of social relations and to apply his word literally in all situations in an individualistic way. Calling for solidarity among all evangelicals (and especially free churches) around this individual reading of the Bible, the preacher ended with an attempt to forge this reading of Psalm 1 as the central identity piece that defined who evangelicals were and how they should engage the world.
It’s like this preacher was just asking for a critique from the church catholic. I’m happy to give it to him.
Let me emphasize first that while this theology certainly floats around in this free church, it certainly isn’t the main thing that I often hear preached. In fact, as I said before, my friend’s work (the pastor) is much more thoughtful than the standard evangelical caricatures that I’ve also seen floating around. Indeed, if there is an exception to Churl’s scream against evangelicalism on the blog, it’s my friend. My critique, however, is not one of evangelical theology writ large, then, tempting as that might be. (Indeed, how can one critique evangelical theology writ large if evangelicalism itself is such a fragmented movement at present? More on this in a separate post.) Following the individualism in the sermon that was preached, this is simply a critique of one individual sermon unfortunately preached by someone of some stature in the local evangelical community, which means that despite its capacity to stand alone, it’s not something that should be overlooked. It should be rigorously engaged and refuted for the sake of the church’s well-being.
So without further ado, the critique:
This sermon, as it stands, did an utter theological disservice to both the gift that is the free church and the body that is the church catholic. It did so by reducing the church to an ideologically-driven community and the Scriptural text to an ideological manifesto. Let me take both in turn.
The gift that is the free church to the church catholic is its witness against Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican complicity with the development of modern nation-states. The story is often told in the free church that while the Protestant Reformers broke away from the Catholic Church because of Rome’s increasing corruption of both doctrine and ecclesial practice, they also quickly sold the church to the state in the German states, the Calvinist city-states, and the English nation. Standing against the ideological co-optation of the church by the state so that all citizens of those states became nominal Christians, the free church wrested control of church governance away from the state and put it into the hands of the people in the churches themselves. This was the origin of a particular kind of free church governance, one that prized congregational autonomy and the decision-making of the congregation itself over against any kind of hegemonic elite rule. The Chinese evangelical variant of this free church polity originated from evangelical congregations in North America whose senior pastors ruled the congregation with an allegedly iron first. Discovering the free church’s polity, Chinese evangelicals planted free churches with bylaws that wrote out the pastor from church governance, enshrining power within a democratically-elected deacon board that was always directly answerable to the congregation while putting pastors under the charge of the congregation and the deacons to make sure that they were doing their job of prayer, congregational visitation, and the ministry of the Word. Some ministers in this polity have described it as utterly oppressive, subordinating the clergy to the will of the people, while others have said that it is freeing to know that administrative matters are not within the provenance of the pastoral staff and are conducted instead by the congregation. Seeing the merits of both sides, my friend pleads ambivalence.
In any case, to reduce any of this free church polity to an ideologically-policing community does the free church a major disservice. At a textual level, this theological interpretation of Psalm 1 is already a hermeneutical blunder (shout out to New Testament exegete extraordinaire Sam Tsang and his blogs on Scripture and preaching), failing to take into account how the ‘wicked,’ the ‘sinners,’ and the ‘scoffers’ are framed in the Psalter and in the Torah: they are not framed as people who don’t hold ideologically to Christian values, but as greedy, exploitative, backstabbing, traitorous thieves seeking to murder the innocent, exploit the poor, and do violence to their communities for individual, private gain. The ‘mockery’ of the mockers is not the mocking of Christian ideological values (which is why I was rolling my eyes); it is the act of wickedly mocking the innocent, the righteous, and the pure in heart, the ones who do not take bribes or charge interest on their loans, the ones who help the poor and the least of these without thought for personal gain, the ones who forego wealth accumulation to be in radical solidarity with the downtrodden. Hang out with those who mock the poor, the psalmist says, and your entire way of life will become exploitative and scheming, out of step with the way of life prescribed in the Torah with its preferential option for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.
However, put into the context of the free church as a gift, the ideologization of Psalm 1 nullifies the whole reason that the free church broke away from the state churches: to escape the tyranny of ideology.The point of the church isn’t to teach what is right and what is wrong and to police its members’ values; it’s to live out a Christian life founded on an alternate mode of existence called love. This is arguably precisely why the free church had to depart from the state: it was the state that was policing its members’ values, co-opting theological concepts for its own political agenda. If the free church were to police its members’ ideological views, then we must ask what the political motivations of the free church vis-à-vis the state are. And if we were to find out that the free church withdrew itself from the state only to influence the state with its own ideological values more effectively, then does this posit that the free church was founded on a lie? I’d like to think not. I, for one and as an Anglican grappling with the baggage of state-entanglement in my own communion, treasure this witness from the free church that the church should neither be controlled by the state, nor have a political agenda to suggest to the state to enact on the free church’s behalf.
This brings us to the larger point that the preacher was trying to make: that individual Christians should be planted firmly in the Word of God, that is, the Bible read as an ideological manifesto. By relativizing the sociality of the Christian life (a good that is affirmed by Catholics in Henri de Lubac, by state-entangled Protestants in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and by free church theologian Miroslav Volf), the preacher is claiming that the church catholic is unnecessary and that everything we confess in the creed about the Holy Spirit is tangential to our common baptism. At one level, this assertion reduces the Bible from its complex canonical library, its purposefully ambiguous narratives about the mystery of everyday lives lived before the living God, and its radical disclosure that God is alive and incarnate in Jesus Christ. It strips away all of this textual richness and leaves us with an abstract code that can be mined for principles and values over morning coffee. There is nothing even literal about this sort of epistemic violence perpetrated on the text, except that it is literally a violent way of dealing with the text. It in fact enshrines the reader as interpreter over the text, drawing out values for his or her own interest in ideological formation with little reference to what Scripture is actually trying to tell the reader about God and the world. It is thus a betrayal of everything that evangelicals themselves purport to believe about the nature of Scripture, for the one that quickly becomes inerrant in this ideological reading is not the text, but the reader.
But to enshrine the inerrant reader as an individual Christian boasting of his or her firm ideological rootedness is a denial of everything that the Body of Christ stands for. The church catholic exists precisely to mitigate against these ideological claims to individual sovereignty. It tells us that our identity is not rooted in one’s individual ideological formation, but in one’s relation to the ‘other,’ in what Bonhoeffer called ‘being for the other.’ And here, the text of Scripture does not show us what values to hold. It unfolds for us these complex lives and stories of people in messy communion with each other, struggling between temptations to assume the ideological power to define the knowledge of good and evil and the life-giving way of the Torah to give ourselves up in love for our neighbour. This is precisely why the Lord Jesus founded a church, why St. Paul calls us to imitate him in love, why St. Peter calls us a holy nation and a royal priesthood, why St. John tells us that the Lord’s new commandment can be summed up this way: that we love one another as he loved us. Christian life is not about me and my rootedness. Christian life is about my neighbour, my brother, my sister, even my enemy, and whether I love them and give myself up for them.
And so I say to the preacher: no, ideological sermons are not OK. They are a disgrace both to your free church tradition (which is a gift to all of us in the church catholic) and to the church catholic itself (into which you confess yourself to be baptized). They reduce the means of grace which the Lord has given to us in both the Word and the church to abstract statements. They excarnate Christian life precisely where the Scriptures (and dare I say it, the entire Christian tradition) call us to incarnate life.
In short, I am saying to the preacher: by virtue of your baptism, you are better than this, and I am calling you out because you are my brother, preaching to your brothers and sisters, and as you get up to the pulpit and declare the whole counsel of God, you do not only speak privately to a church gathered by a common ideology. You are speaking to the entire church catholic because we Christians gather on Sunday not around abstract values, but around our risen Lord whom we confess to be in our midst. Don’t get up there and deny your solidarity with the church. Get up there and perform your ministry of reconciliation. It’s that to which the risen Lord calls us, whether we are free church or Anglican, Catholic or Chinglican. We are a gift to each other, exercising charisms that build up the Body of Christ in our collective witness that the old order is falling away and the new order of the Resurrection has already been inaugurated in the risen life of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Today is Corpus Christi Sunday. The evangelical Anglican church that I attend probably doesn’t care very much, but I do. In fact, I care quite a lot, even though, unlike Churl and Audrey Assad down below, I actually don’t feel much need for myself to actually become Roman Catholic, much as I hunger and thirst for greater catholicity and for the Anglican and Roman Catholic communions to keep getting blown together by the Spirit. But still, I do believe in the Real Presence, I am looking forward to Pope Francis’s worldwide eucharistic adoration, and I celebrate Corpus Christi Sunday.
Why?especially because I’m not planning on becoming a full-blooded Catholic, remaining instead as what Churl calls a ‘knock-off Mars bar’ (don’t you worry, Churl, no offence given, no offence taken). My answer: Corpus Christi Sunday changed my life.
About four years ago, I was in a very similar predicament that I am currently in: I was doing a graduate degree in the social sciences while longing to study Christian theology. I hope I’ve made progress in both, especially in bringing the two together, but as it happened, my journey–in the middle of thesis writing that time, no less–took me to a retreat at a Congregation of Holy Cross house of studies in Berkeley, CA. I knew the house superior, as he was my creative writing mentor when I attended a Holy Cross high school in the Bay Area, and as soon as I got there, he piled on the Balthasar, O’Connor, and Hopkins and told me to read it all. I was very obedient, or so I think I was. I also read some Michael Ramsey during that time, I think, but shh.
In any case, during those two weeks, I had to do something I’d never done before: attend daily mass. I had served as a pastoral apprentice for three years at various Chinese Anglican churches before that, so I had some vague idea of what the liturgy was going to be like (not that I could do it from memory, like my pre-new rites Catholic brothers and sisters). Those two weeks, we read through the Book of Tobit for the first reading; though the Thirty-Nine Articles (#6) knocks off St. Jerome to say that it’s a book that ‘the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine,’ I have to say that the story of Tobias and Sarah, the demon Asmodeus, and the archangel Raphael made for a lot of good fun at 8 AM every morning, especially among people who saw the book as part of the canonical Hebrew Scriptures. One of the mass attendees, a staff worker at the Jesuit theological school across the street, told me after mass one day, ‘I love it every time we get around to Tobit. It’s such a thrilling story, don’t you think?’ (Confession: I then went and read Judith to see what that was like. Even more scandalous.)
I also wore a black hoodie to mass every morning to see if I could be mistaken for a Franciscan monk and given communion; I was asked if I was an ordained Anglican priest (I’m not, and don’t plan on being one), but no, unfortunately, it didn’t work. But it did get me, good evangelical Anglican that I was, exposed to Corpus Christi, a solemnity I’d never heard of (OK, at that point, I hadn’t heard of a lot of stuff; I had no idea, for example, what the heck the ‘sacred heart’ was, even). I was exposed to Corpus Christi because the last Sunday I was at this retreat was Corpus Christi Sunday that year. Yes, I know that Corpus Christi is usually celebrated the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, but like many Catholics, the Holy Cross Center did it on the Sunday.
I didn’t actually go to mass that day, and I didn’t take part in any procession (true story: the first Corpus Christi procession I ever saw was in The Godfather, Part 2). Instead, I went to a Chinese charismatic church (gasp!). My fifth-grade Sunday school teacher was a children’s pastor at that church, and come to think of it, it was pretty meaningful that I got to see her on Corpus Christi Sunday because she was the first to teach me a high view of communion. She even advocated (unsuccessfully, unfortunately) for us kids to be able to go downstairs whenever the adults had communion and to simply observe if we weren’t baptized yet (we were credo-baptists, and I was baptized when I was nine, but that’s a long story–the short version is that my best friend was getting dunked, so I wanted to as well). She told us that communion is a sacred moment that we should get to observe and even partake of, as it’s a moment of being very close to the Lord. If my charismatic auntie didn’t know how close she was to the Real Presence, I hope she finds out some day that she set me on a sure course toward acknowledging the Real Presence in the Eucharist.
In any case, that year was a particularly difficult year for me because three years in the ministry apprenticeship meant that I had made a lot of enemies. This is not to say that everyone who does ministry makes enemies this early on in their career, but in case you couldn’t tell, I can be fairly outspoken, and I was confused on where I stood in relation to the neo-Reformed tribe, so that made for a fairly combustible combination. Suffice it to say that I lost some friends, managed to alienate others, had others alienate me, and suffered a few dating rejections too (as the kid in Love Actually says, there’s ‘nothing worse than the total agony of being in love’). As Corpus Christi Sunday was coming to a close, this charismatic auntie took me into her home for a session of healing prayer.
Yes, now that I’ve said the two words ‘healing prayer,’ you now know how deep in the bowels of Pentecostalism I was at this point. I saw my priest friends at the Catholic house of studies the next day and tried to explain why I had missed not only mass, but pizza and movie night, and I said that it was some kind of Ignatian thing where you imagine rooms and people who have hurt you, etc. etc. The priests looked at me really funny, like I had gotten involved in some kind of crock science, and if you know what ‘healing prayer’ is, I’ll bet at least one eyebrow has gone up on your face in both curiosity and ridicule. Let me confirm for you your worst fears. ‘Healing prayer’ is indeed sort of like the Ignatian exercises, except that you never get out of the first week and you focus on sins done to you, which is why you need ‘healing.’ Most people I’ve seen come out of ‘healing prayer’ thus have this sort of euphoric feeling of having dealt with everything bad in their lives, only to sink into a complete malaise and paralysis the week afterward because you just raised your awareness of stuff, given it a hurtful hermeneutic, and said that you dismissed it when you really didn’t. As a warning to the wise, then, if anyone ever approaches you to do ‘healing prayer,’ just go find a proper Jesuit spiritual director.
I had no such warning, but God is both humourous and gracious. I won’t describe to you in lurid detail what I imagined or saw or confessed, but suffice it to say that while my charismatic auntie wanted to keep taking me to the agony in the garden because my ministry experience was apparently very agonizing (it was, to be sure, but that’s a different post), I didn’t want to leave the Upper Room. I think as I described what I saw in the Upper Room and all the people I wanted to forgive (turns out, in hindsight, that I should probably have been asking for their forgiveness…OH WELL), she was like, ‘OK, can we finally go downstairs now? What’s with the Upper Room?’
It takes time to reflect on these things, but as I think back on that healing prayer session now, I think I was just basking there in the Real Presence, at least virtually speaking. Indeed, during those two weeks, a lot of eucharistic things happened. Yes, I was introduced to daily mass, the sacred heart, and Corpus Christi. Yes, I couldn’t get out of the Upper Room during healing prayer. But probably the most significant thing was this: the week prior, on Trinity Sunday, I returned to the church of my childhood after years of not having darkened its doors, after its multiple scandals had devastated many of my childhood friendships, and in an act of forgiveness and reconciliation, I took communion there.
It was in that act that I learned what a schismatic I had been for so long. Having left that childhood church after my friendships were devastated by Toronto Blessing crazies, a sex scandal, a leadership crisis, and the ostracization of our entire Cantonese congregation, I had been wandering, looking for a home, a place that I could agree with and a place where no more bad political stuff would ever happen. I never found it. So I wandered from church to church, even working at some of them, and in time, I also took on a sort of neo-Reformed persona to be able to articulate a theology of why I wasn’t about to stay at a church that failed to preach the Gospel. As my theological system lay in tatters, my social science thesis in disarray, and my personal church history littered with skeletons, I finally realized in that moment of deep forgiveness that I was the schismatic.
And that is why, as a Chinglican, I celebrate Corpus Christi.
Addressing an Anglican conference at Holy Trinity Brompton yesterday, Friedrich Cardinal Schörborn declared that the election of Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio to the papacy as Pope Francis was due to certain strong, supernatural ‘signs’ before and during the conclave events. He then compared the appointment of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to the election of the pope, calling it a ‘little miracle’ and ‘a sign from the Lord’ for the churches to move to closer unity.
By now, readers of this blog will know that such a declaration is the sort of thing that makes me ecstatic, both in the emotional and charismatic sense. After all, I am an Anglican, but I self-identify as catholic, and I am often conflicted over calling myself ‘Anglo-Catholic’ because I am not an Englishman and harbour no desire to return to that odd, dominating construct we once called the British Empire. That is why, after all, I’ve styled myself a ‘Chinglican.’ For some, these ambivalences may read as falling precisely into what Pope Francis–then Cardinal Bergoglio–condemned prior to the conclave: the ‘self-referential’ Church as a sick, old, and dying Church because it fails to participate in the missio Dei.
Indeed, even when I was an evangelical–that is, when I thought like an evangelical, I spoke like an evangelical, I reasoned like an evangelical–I was accused of being un-missional because it was alleged that I was more interested in church politics, contemplative spirituality, and complex theological terminology than in making the faith accessible through attractive programming and simple language. One time, for example, I was in the home of an evangelical mentor when I pitched the idea of having a class on eschatology, as many people to whom I had spoken (both those in the church and not) expressed a curiosity about the Last Things. He raised his finger and pointed at me: ‘You,’ he said. ‘How dare you. People are lost, and all you want to do is to make things more complicated. Our job is to make things easier for people to understand so that more people can teach this stuff. Who do you think you are?’
He was, in short, calling me ‘self-referential,’ a traitor to the cause of the mission to expand the kingdom of Christ through evangelism and discipleship.
It has been years since this experience, but I finally have a reply. To make my response, I’d like to appropriate critical theorist Judith Butler’s reply to those who call her anti-Semitic for criticizing Israeli state policy: ‘No, it is not anti-Semitic,’ she says, because of the internal contestations within Judaic tradition about the state and because she is hanging on to a narrative of dispossession and precarity within Judaica. In the same way, my appeals to the Christian tradition, particularly a revisionist Anglican one with a deep desire for fuller catholicity, can be framed similarly.
No, I say. It is not self-referential. This is because of the inconvenient fact of Catholic social teaching.
After all, May 15 is the day that we celebrate the promulgation of decisive encyclicals in Catholic social teaching: Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum, Pius XI’s Quadrogesimo Anno, and John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra. Now, Catholic social teaching can often be confused with Catholic sexual teaching. After all, most of what people know about Catholic social teaching is drawn from Monty Python’s ‘Every Sperm Is Sacred’ in The Meaning of Life, a hysterically hilarious lampooning of Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s encyclical condemning artificial birth control as contrary to the natural gift of children through the unitive and procreative sex act. It’s so funny, in fact, that you should see it yourself:
To be sure, this misconception is not altogether unjustified. It has in fact been highlighted in recent forays into public politics by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in their opposition to the Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate to require religious organizations that do not only serve members of their own faith to insure their employees for artificial contraception, including medications deemed by the bishops to be abortifacient (like Plan B). In addition, it’s fairly well-known that the current Archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, was the ‘godfather of Proposition 8‘ when he was bishop of Oakland, raising money to promote a grassroots initiative to write into the state constitution that California only recognizes marriage between one man and one woman. Most recently, Archbishop Allen Vigneron has also told Detroit Catholics who disagree with these socially and sexually conservative stances to refrain from taking communion, implying that opposition to contraception and alternative kinship structures is the definitive Catholic view on sexual and social relations.
Whatever your stance on sexuality issues and traditional family values, these bishops’ interpretation of Catholic social teaching isn’t necessarily wrong or even misguided (it is, however, a particular strand of Catholic sexual teaching emphasizing natural law that is debated among Catholics). Instead, what you can say about it is that it elevates a part of Catholic social teaching that’s actually fairly latent in the encyclicals I just named. It’s actually a bit of a derivative dogma, something that can be drawn out of the concerns of Catholic social teaching as articulated in Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum.
See, Catholic social teaching is best articulated as a Catholic response to current political economic conditions, namely, the threat of unfettered market fundamentalism, what sociologist Max Weber would call the ‘iron cage’ of industrial capitalism with its disenchanting bureaucratic logic permeating everything it touches in the world, what Leo XIII called the ‘new things,’ rerum novarum.While commending socialists for attempting to better labour conditions, Rerum novarum rejects a socialist ideology that places property ownership in the hands of the state and out of the hands of workers themselves. Proposing a Catholic alternative to socialism, Leo XIII emphasized human dignity, arguing that it is the state’s duty to protect the dignity of workers, even as workers themselves had the right to own property, pursue human development in the arts, and make personal time for family. That‘s where the family doctrine comes in: Leo XIII affirmed the family as a basic unit of social relations to which all workers had a right as a matter of basic human dignity. In other words, workers have a right not to be subjectified by the state or the market into cogs in their industrial machine; their human dignity with the basic need for creativity and sociality must be fully recognized.
That‘s Catholic social teaching in a nutshell, a key theme that carries through the encyclicals that the Church is in solidarity with workers as they contest state and market modes of subjectification for their right to basic human dignity.
Anglican though he is, Justin Welby has taken Catholic social teaching as a sort of guiding light in introducing a new social priority to the Church of England: going after the corrupt banks that got us into the global economic mess that we’re in. What is needed, Welby argues, is a whole different way of imagining and managing the financial system, where the banks are not self-serving, but instead see their institutions as serving people. This is very close to what Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Caritas in Veritate, where the Pope Emeritus notes that both justice and the common good both emanate from a will to love and that what is probably needed is a global financial regulator to keep markets from becoming unfettered.
This is why the healing of schism is so important. The Church’s role is not simply to speak words of love; it is to demonstrate it in action. Longing for the recovery of Christian tradition for the sake of healing schism is not self-referential because there is a distinct social priority at the heart of catholicity: bearing witness to the reality that there is another way of being in the world. Who knows what this will mean for Canterbury and Rome? If Bergoglio’s words to Anglican Southern Cone primate Greg Venables is any indication–he told Venables that there was no need for an Anglican Ordinariate because Anglican charisms were already a gift to the church catholic–might it be possible that the next few years might hold within it a full return to communion between the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church? Might this in turn signal a new springtime for Catholic social teaching in which the Church will be seen as decisively on the side of the poor and fully oppositional to any sort of self-serving institution that neglects the common good?
Home reunion in turn might clarify some of the things that came to light in the tenure of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. I’ve often noted that both did a fantastic job at one key thing: managing to polarize their entire communions on the left and the right, even as an impulse to catholic reunion has sort of been latent among the faithful, slowly rising to the surface. The appointment of Justin Welby and the election of Pope Francis doesn’t signify a break with Williams and Ratzinger. It’s a sign, as Schönborn put it so eloquently, that the Church is coming into all the truth, that the Spirit is moving among the people of God to rebuild the witness we shattered through our schismatic actions. Indeed, as we saw in Welby’s ‘Journey in Prayer’ pilgrimage through rural and urban dioceses in the Church of England, as well as Pope Francis’s coming out onto the loggia and then into the midst of the people to the chagrin of his security detail, we saw two prophetic priests emerging in the power of the Spirit declaring to the people of God that the time has come, the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel, the Gospel not as an ideology, but as a whole new way of being that places love and forgiveness at the basis of human dignity, justice, and the common good. In short, in the faces of Justin Cantuar and Pope Francis, we are seeing Jesus and following him.
And yet, here is where those obsessed with developing distinctive theological identities will cry foul. Home reunion, it might be alleged, will soften distinctive points in Catholic and Anglican theology, riding roughshod over disagreements over papal primacy, the role of women, the place of LGBTIQ populations, the veneration of saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary, the scientific inerrancy of Scripture, and the alone in justification by faith. In fact, as Rachel Held Evans pointed out in a post yesterday, it seems that it is evangelicals who are becoming more and more obsessed with constructing a distinctive identity, one that is becoming narrower with each blog post. In the spirit of attempting to remain distinctively evangelical, for example, the latest denial of Christian catholicity comes from Tim Challies, who rejects ‘mysticism’ as a subjective experience that challenges the inerrant authority of Scripture. Evans takes Challies to task by showing him how much she has grown from reading widely in the Christian mystical tradition. She even goes as far to say that Scripture cannot be a mediator between humans and the divine because we have no need for a mediator.
Here is where I can offer Rachel a bit of a corrective, as well as a parable for those who might oppose any sort of catholic reunion for ideological purposes. Our faith is mediated, but not by the Scriptural text, yes. It is through the sanctorum communio, what Bonhoeffer noted in his doctoral dissertation was the social manifestation of Christ in the present. To that end, we might note that Justin Welby offers evangelicals a different way forward, one that calls evangelicals out of being ‘self-referential.’ Welby has quite the evangelical life story. After all, he came to faith through the Alpha Course through the evangelical Holy Trinity Brompton, a church that has also given evangelicals some of their cherished anthems like ‘Here I Am to Worship,’ ‘Everything,’ ‘Beautiful One,’ and ‘Consuming Fire.’ But unlike much of the anxiety among evangelicals over a distinctive evangelical identity, Justin Welby has no trouble taking on Catholic social teaching as a moral compass. Neither is he averse to conversation with Rome–one that will prove to be interesting in the Franciscan pontificate–nor is he unaware of the vast diversity of theologies, liturgies, and politics in the Anglican Communion. Justin Welby might thus serve as an example to evangelicals on how to be an evangelical. His story is also a parable to those who entrench themselves in ideologies that are inimical to catholicity. You see, evangelical identity is not achieved by being self-referential. It is by participating in the mission of God through the church that is becoming more catholic as the Spirit leads us into all truth. In the words of the Lord Jesus, it is to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow our crucified and risen Lord.
Co-crucifixion and the new sociality effected by the Resurrection are hardly self-referential.
It has become a truism of late that some disaffected evangelicals want to become Catholic because Catholicism has so much more of a robust faith than Protestantism. (A few years ago, Eastern Orthodoxy was a big deal too–arguably still is!) While many more have a more informed account than the hipster one I will provide (I have some smart Catholic convert friends, you see), a typically recent narrative often goes something like this:
Unlike the format of rocked-out worship songs followed by a lengthy sermon, Catholicism (it is said) has a liturgy, a call-and-response between people and priest. Unlike the marketing ethos that pervades much of evangelicalism, Catholicism is like coming home to what Tolkien might call the ‘Last Homely Home.’ Unlike the cheesy literature that fills Christian bookstores that won’t let Rachel Held Evans use the word ‘vagina,’ Catholicism is the religion of what Hans Urs von Balthasar calls the ‘lay styles,’ the people like Dante, Péguy, and Hopkins who saw the glory of the Lord, got sucked in, and wrote it all down in sublime poetry. Catholicism rocks these evangelical converts’ socks because it’s just everything that they were looking for in evangelicalism but couldn’t find because evangelicalism has become corrupted by the free market and its chief political proponents, the Republican Party and their hard neoliberal equivalents in other countries.
As someone who grew up as a non-denominational evangelical and was confirmed into the Anglican Communion (what those who have jumped the Tiber might call the Americano version of Catholic espresso; I’d like to state for the record, however, that the primate who confirmed me had apostolic succession), I can attest to the feeling that Catholics have something that evangelicals don’t have. Catholic theologian James Alison talks about being blown into the Catholic Church from his evangelical Anglican background by falling in love with a classmate who had a grace that he associated with being Catholic (apparently, as a child, his family had John Stott as a close family friend). I remember living in a Catholic house of studies where the daily mass’s liturgical homily was more Christocentric than I had ever heard at an evangelical church. I also always go back to that time I attended mass at a Catholic church where the cantor led worship from guitar with a full band and took us to sublime heights (he even slipped in a Hillsong piece); incidentally, that day was the first day they used the new rites, and while everyone was sufficiently confused about the ‘and with your spirit’ and ‘under my roof’ lines, my sister described the music as giving her an ‘eargasm’ (Rachel Held Evans would like that). Even before that, I recall first partaking of the Anglican Eucharistic liturgy–which, incidentally, reminded me a lot of Catholic school (as one priest reminded me, you know who stole from whom)–and realizing that the Gospel that evangelicals always tried to articulate in fresh ways was already fully expressed in the liturgy.
Readers of this blog will be tempted to channel everything I say through those personal experiences. Fully aware of positionality issues, however, I’d like to state for the record that they are not what I mean by the Catholic thing, that is, the central theme that some readers have identified in my contributions to this blog: everybody seems to be a closet Catholic. In other words, however readers may assess the motives behind my Catholic gymnastics, I am categorically not trying to impose my own aesthetic fetishes on other brothers and sisters in Christ.
That said, the readers of this blog should not be blamed for thinking that I engage in frequent psychological imposition. This is really my fault, my own grievous fault: I confess to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have committed a great sin of omission, for I have failed to define two very key terms. They are Protestant and Catholic. While most readers will take these terms’ meanings to be obvious, the crisis in theology and religious studies around terms like religion, secular, ritual, and myth suggests that I shouldn’t assume that everyone agrees about what these terms mean. Certainly, as we saw in the Anglican post, I’m inclined to a certain understanding of what it means to be ‘Anglican,’ one which, as I noted in the post, other Anglicans might recognize as a validly different form of Anglicanism and proceed to insult it accordingly. In like fashion, I’d like to say exactly what I mean by these two other terms. By Catholic, I simply refer to churches who recognize their communion with the see of Rome such that the see of Rome likewise recognizes its communion with those churches. By Protestant, I refer to churches that were once in communion with the see of Rome but fractured that communion in the sixteenth century for this, that, and the other ideological reason. As you can see, the theological method I’m using here is not very different from my assessment of Anglicanism, that is to say, the form of communion takes primacy over substantive confessional points. (Here, if you are an evangelical, can I beg you to hold your fire for a sec? I’ll get to the confessional points by the end.)
You can see now why I think so many people are closet Catholics. Schism is never pretty, and as Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac argues in his book Catholicism (with the cheesy English subtitle Christ and the Common Destiny of Man), the Holy Spirit gives Christians a ‘Catholic spirit,’ a desire for union with the rest of humanity. The fact that Protestants are out of communion with Rome should be cause for grief for the sheer fact that there are Christians (not to mention other humans) with whom we are not in communion, for the ontological reality in Christianity (well, the orthodox versions, at any rate) is that communion is what we’re made for. To say that the confessional differences on the Virgin Mary, the communion of saints, and the primacy of Rome are sufficient to erect boundaries should still be cause for ontological pain because plainly put, regardless of the reasons, schism still sucks.
This is, of course, why you have to laugh when an evangelical tells you they became Catholic for substantive confessional reasons. After all, everything I just said doesn’t give you much substantive confessional difference between Catholicism and Protestantism, per se. Take, for example, the typical conversion narrative that an evangelical Protestant might rehearse: tired of the market commodification of evangelical Protestantism, they became Catholic to practice a fuller form of the faith. This narrative, however, raises all sorts of questions. For one thing, don’t Catholics also participate in the market commodification of their own faith at times? I mean, have they ever visited a Catholic bookstore? Luther might also have one or two things to say about coupons, building projects, and cheesy jingles about hell and purgatory in the sixteenth century.
To drive home the point, I often scratch my head at the actual substantive difference between a Catholic youth ministry and a Protestant youth ministry. For every evangelical who tells me that they grew up in a big youth group, did the big flashy youth ministry thing, and have now resigned in disgust because it’s not about numbers but truly contemplative faith, I’m tempted to ask if they’ve ever heard of World Youth Day. For every evangelical who tells me that they’re sick of Christian music, I’m curious to know if they’ve ever listened to Audrey Assad, Jackie François, and Matt Maher, much less heard that selections of Hillsong, Vineyard, Maranatha, and even that classic evangelical hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ have all been imported wholesale and oftentimes unproblematically into Catholic worship. (In fact, given this all of this awesomeness–I happen to really, really enjoy listening to Assad, François, and Maher, thank you very much–I’m really rooting for Brooke Fraser to join this Catholic musical dream team, as she and André Crouch would say, ‘soon and very soon.’) For every evangelical who feels disillusioned with Christian media, I wonder if they’ve ever heard of EWTN and whether they know that Bishop Fulton Sheen donned in all of his episcopal regalia was really America’s first televangelist. For every evangelical sick of evangelical fundraising, I’d like to know if they’ve ever heard of a diocesan capital campaign.
The only real difference that I can really think of between Catholics and Protestants is this: being ‘Protestant’ is often tied to ‘maintaining a Protestant identity’ or holding onto ‘denominational distinctives.’ Sometimes this means adding a Latin ‘sola’ before everything and an English ‘alone’ after translations. Other times, it means abstracting Scripture from its historical canonization process and debating whether it’s scientifically inerrant (talk about form over substantive confession!). Still other times, it requires explaining why Catholics are wrong about everything, a favour that Catholics used to return by explaining why Protestants were wrong about everything (thankfully, the tone has softened). This, of course, is where the complaint about ‘protestantization’ in theology and religious studies comes from: over time, these ideological distinctives, formed through cognitive belief and emphasizing individual interiority, began to be believed by Protestants as that which composes religion itself. It’s little wonder that Jefferson Bethke decided to take a potshot at this account of religion; whatever complaints you might have about his oversimplification of religion and his ties to the neo-Calvinist crowd, his return to praxis, as well as his likely unintentional repudiation of overly ‘protestantized’ religion, should be welcomed as a surprisingly ‘catholicizing’ statement of faith. (Oops, I did it again.)
Ecumenical movements also provide excellent counterweights to how these variants of ideological maintenance don’t have to run the show, which means, thankfully, someone like me can still be a Protestant because I started out that way journeying toward greater communion. You could arguably say ditto about folks like Karl Barth, Stanley Hauerwas, and John Milbank. In fact, if you look at the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) reports, you might find it a bit interesting, amusing, and (to some) troubling that the Anglicans end up basically agreeing with the Catholics on the historic primacy of Rome and the special role of Mary in the Church. As has been noted on this blog, relations between Catholics and confessional Lutherans are also getting mighty friendly. And this ecumenism isn’t just something ‘liberals’ or ‘conservatives’ do; there are progressive ecumenical conversations going on about social justice even while there are conservative ecumenical conversations happening about confronting secularization. The trouble is, with ecumenism also came some (and let me stress: only some)fundamentalists and evangelicals who accused ecumenists of being modernists caving into a culture of relativism and failing to uphold biblical standards and doctrinal statements, that is to say, letting the Protestant guard down.
It’s people in the latter camp that my Catholic gymnastics target. While I’d argue that most Christians (if they’re honest) have seen the light on communion and ecumenism–whether or not they actually become Catholic or not is another story (I haven’t)–there are some who seem to insist that this is not the light. My tack is to argue that because they are Christian, they simply don’t know that they have already seen the light. To this end, I am not saying that they want to become Catholic for substantive confessional reasons. In fact, I’m saying that those who become Catholic to get away from all the evangelical hype and give substantive confessional reasons for doing it might be jumping out of the fire into the frying pan (I certainly think that’s true of those who become Anglican, myself included). However, I am also saying that I believe in the Holy Spirit, and if indeed the Spirit guides us into all truth–the truth that God in Christ is making all things new and reconciling things in heaven and things on earth into a Christological unity–then why wouldn’t anyone in their right mind not at least long (even secretly so) to participate in the greater catholicity of the church, even (oh, my) with Christians in the see of Rome? Why would anyone think that schism is a good thing to maintain? And if one truly confesses belief in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, why wouldn’t one at least entertain the possibility that God being God of the living and not the dead allows us to converse with the saints across time and space, including the Blessed Virgin?
What I mean by the Catholic thing, then, is nothing short of wanting to be part of the whole communion of saints, which incidentally usually acknowledges the primacy of the see of Rome in some way, shape, or fashion; at least it has as early as Clement of Rome’s first letter to Corinth in the late first century. In fact, nobody in recent times has recognized this interesting formulation better than Pope Francis himself. In his first appearance on the Loggia, Pope Francis never referred to his papal office as having primacy, per se. Instead, speaking as the newly elected Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis spoke of the see of Rome as ‘the church that presides in charity over all the churches.’ To be in communion with Rome is not so much to acknowledge papal infallibility, per se (much as Vatican I would make us believe that we have to). It’s to be in communion with the see that has historically held primacy as the unifier of all the Christian churches since the first century. Being in open communion with that see is technically what’s supposed to make you fully Catholic. Being formerly in communion with that see, but having broken it off for this, that, and the other reason is technically what makes you Protestant (unless, of course, you are the Society of St. Pius X).
What follows from this, finally, is that any charitable and gracious reading of Christians who actively make schismatic remarks is that they really don’t intend to do so. Assuming the best of the Spirit’s work in their lives, we must assume that what they are really longing for is to become fully Catholic. As Rachel Held Evans reminds us today, there is a season in our journey toward questioning and then re-establishing communion. We are looking forward to the season when we all realize that we long for communion. After all, Catholic or Protestant, we still recite the baptismal creed where we say that we ‘believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church and the communion of saints.’ I promised that I’d get to a substantive confessional point, and I finally have: if we say that the creed sums up the substantive teaching of the Apostles from whom we derive the ecclesial form of succession, we’d better mean what we say in that creed, and if we love our brothers and sisters, we’d better believe that everyone else who says it means it too, some of them more than they know. Together, we all long for the end of schism, for a church that is perfectly one, even as the Father is with the Son, that the world may know that the Father has sent the Son.
Jesus says in Sunday’s Gospel reading: ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid’ (John 14.27). These words are also the preface in most Christian liturgies to the ‘peace,’ the section in the Eucharistic celebration where we greet each other in the name of Christ, reconciling with those whom we have wronged and joining together in love before partaking of the body and the blood together.
This is more than liturgically appropriate–arguably one of the earliest parts in liturgical development–because the peace’s context is what has come to be known as the ‘Farewell Discourses’ in St. John’s Gospel, the conversation (well, OK, it’s more like a monologue with a few leading questions) where, in light of ‘going to the Father,’ the Lord enjoins his disciples to love one another as he has loved them, to wait for the Paraclete who will lead them deeper into the ontological truth of the death and resurrection, and to live so deeply in the truth that the Father and the Son make their home with them even as the world hates them and persecutes them. The emphasis on reconciling love and passing the peace pervades the other lectionary readings as well. In Acts 15, the Council of Jerusalem is convened to deal with the theological assertions of a party of Jewish Christians who want the Gentiles to get circumcised and follow the Mosaic dietary laws. The Council concludes that non-Jewish Christians only have to do the bare minimum as they find themselves at peace with their Jewish brothers and sisters as part of the new covenant: don’t eat meat sacrificed to idols, don’t eat blood, don’t engage in porneia. By the time of the second reading in Revelation 21, it’s revealed that everyone here belongs to the New Jerusalem, the new Israel, the new Temple, shining with the glory of the Lord, who is the Lamb (thanks, Balthasar). The mystical communion of the New Jerusalem founded on an ontology of mystical love was aptly demonstrated to me on Sunday morning: at the free church that I occasionally attend with my wife (a likely surprise to everyone who thought I considered non-Anglican churches beyond the pale), the pastor preached on communion as a practice of reconciling love that cuts across the ecclesial boundaries we erect against each other. Without knowing what the lectionary readings actually were, this pastor (in my humble opinion) represents a sign that God still mystically unites his church catholic despite our intentional divisiveness, for he was practicing ecumenism as an evangelical without even being conscious of it.
This ‘mystic, sweet communion’ might well be applied to those who seem inadvertently and unintentionally to be set up as the arch-nemeses of this blog: the young and restless Protestant tribe dubbed the ‘neo-Calvinists.’ Mark Driscoll is in trouble again (what’s new?): at the recent Catalyst conference, he said something to the effect that because he knows his Maker, who is the maker of the environment, and he is certain that God the Creator will burn the whole thing up, yes, he drives an SUV. He followed this with a (typically) sexist joke that those who drive minivans are ‘mini-men.’ Upon making these remarks, my Facebook news feed erupted in anger, some with passive sighs, others with a call to arms, still others disavowing any connection with Driscoll. One friend even resurrected an old allegation that Mars Hill Church is in fact a ‘cult.’
As I’ve said before on this blog, I do not think the ‘cult’ accusation is very helpful and that Driscoll’s sectarian tendencies are better read as a psychological resistance to his longing to return to his roots as an Irish Catholic. In light of these Catholic musings, I wonder if diatribes against the neo-Reformed tribe don’t in fact stoke their sense of justification by sixteenth-century polemics alone. I wonder if instead passing the peace to them might in fact provoke them to reflect on theirschismatic tendencies and in turn infuse them with such a love that will cover a multitude of sins.
What would it look like to pass the peace to folks like Mark Driscoll and John Piper? I think it’s by arguing that they secretly wish they were Catholic, that they really don’t intend to be schismatic but long instead for deeper communion with the rest of the church catholic. The trouble is that they’ve built their pastoral careers on constructing congregations around hard Reformed Protestant theologies, so they find themselves between a rock and a hard place. It is thus up to us to extend a hand of friendship as they struggle between ideological (they would call it ‘doctrinal’) purity and their ontological reality.
I have argued sufficiently in the other post that Driscoll is a closet Catholic in denial, so I will not reprise my arguments here. Instead, in this post, I will subject one of his teachers, John Piper, to a similar (but briefer) treatment. (Incidentally, this treatment has already been undertaken by a hyper-Reformed blog seeking to undermine Piper’s credibility as a Calvinist. Where they wax uncharitable, I will attempt to be charitable to a fault.)
Piper put forward a (likely unintentionally) schismatic argument that if he were to have a conversation with the pope, he would ask him whether he believes that we are justified by faith alone and whether the righteousness of God is directly imputed to believers through their act of faith. If the pope were to disagree with this formulation, Piper would declare him a heretic. See for yourself:
When Pope Francis was elected, Piper put forward a clarifying statement, one that incidentally showed up on my news feed at the same time that Southern Baptist theologian Al Mohler denounced the papal office as Antichrist altogether. (I will subject Mohler to Catholic treatment in a future post; stay tuned.) Walking back his comments on Catholicism as a ‘heresy,’ Piper admits:
I am thankful that God is willing to save us even when our grasp of the gospel may be partial or defective. None of us has a comprehensive or perfect grasp of it.
Nevertheless, God’s mercy is not a warrant to neglect or deny precious truths, especially those that are at the heart of how we get right with God. And the teachers of the church (notably the Pope) will be held more responsible than others for teaching what is fully biblical.
While refusing to walk back his absolutist statements on imputation (you can’t cede all your ground without completely losing face, you know), this, in the words of gay Catholic theologian James Alison, is nonetheless an attempt to ‘lower the temperature’ and ‘loosen the screws.’
Piper can do this because the figure in the theological background for his entire theological system is Jonathan Edwards, a Puritan preacher whom I will also argue had loose Catholic tendencies (pax, Edwards). Piper draws from all parts of Edwards to build his theological system, from Edwards’s Lockean tabula rasa in his understanding of the process of Scriptural and scientific exegesis, to Edwards’s meditations on beauty to build a theology of Christian hedonism (i.e. that we exist to glorify God by enjoying him forever), to Edwards’s marriage to Sarah Edwards to build a case for gender complementarity (these themes emerge even more prominently in their daughter Esther Edwards Burr’s diary), to Edwards’s late evangelistic efforts to indigenous peoples to build a case for risking your life for missions (Piper likes David Brainerd too, btw, both of whom, in Piper’s reading, did not waste their lives by becoming too comfortable in academia), to Edwards’s treatment of religious affections to build a case for a Reformed charismatic theology (putting him in line with Sovereign Grace Ministries, the systematic theology of Wayne Grudem, Louie Giglio’s Passion conferences, etc.), to Edwards’s understanding of the freedom of the will to build his seven-point ‘double predestinarian’ Calvinism, to Edwards’s decisive handling of the medically pornographic ‘Bad Book Case’ to fight lustful thoughts in his own life, to Edwards’s long tenure as a pastor to argue that all of these metaphysical musings are precisely the work of pastoral ministry. Edwards, in turn, had an ironically high sacramental theology for a Puritan, which led to him getting fired from his Congregational Church for changing the mode of communion from his father-in-law Solomon Stoddard’s ‘converting ordinance’ to a members-only sacrament (or whatever is closest to sacrament that a Puritan can be comfortable saying: means ofgrace?)that could only be taken if you first inspected yourself for sin and if you weren’t under church discipline for ongoing sin in your life. (As an aside, I would put my finger here to understand Mars Hill’s bizarre church discipline cases: they’re attempts to do right by Piper qua Edwards. For a Catholic parallel, see Bishop Allen Vigneron’s suggestion that Catholics who differ on church teaching on abortion and same-sex marriage should not take communion.)
Of course, not all readings of Edwards are oriented to Catholicism; Sang Hyun Lee’s interpretations are notable examples. But you get the point: Piper is a closet Catholic because he reads Edwards as a closet Catholic. (In fact, Edwards’s work can be read as a fully catholic articulation of the Christian faith, as Miroslav Volf tacitly suggests in his reading list in A Common Word Between Us and You.)They both seem to have a fairly high sacramental theology. They take pleasure in contemplative spiritualities. They even both reinforce the gender complementarities in Catholic holy orders. And if you’ve given Piper’s oeuvre a fair reading, you’ll know that he knows the Tradition quite well (never mind if you agree with his assessments) through his discussions of Athanasius, Anselm, and even Aquinas in Desiring God and The Pleasures of God.
The real trouble, then, is that they are both given to excess in their insistence that because they are Puritan, they cannot be Catholic. These excesses in turn can be corrected.
Mirroring an Edwardsian ‘personal narrative’ of divine conversions, I personally know that these excesses can be corrected because I myself am a neo-Reformed convert. I had a conversation with someone this afternoon who said that they got into the neo-Reformed thing because they were looking for something more solidly Protestant after being in a ‘loosy-goosy’ evangelical church, and I daresay that my experience was the same. In university, after passing through a progressive Catholic school that taught me the basics of liberal Protestant biblical criticism and liberation theology as well as Chinese evangelical congregations that could be framed as ‘more grace than works,’ I got into the work of Driscoll, Piper, Mahaney, Harris, Chandler, Bradley, Keller, etc. in university because their Protestant-speak was so appealing. My wife, whom I had attempted to date (rather, court) at the time, tells me that I was kind of an absolutist jerk at the time, and I daresay most of the women who also rejected my dating advances at the time would make similar comments. (So much for the neo-Calvinist expertise on biblical courtship.)
However, as they say in these neo-Reformed circles, God’s grace is truly irresistible. When I was in high school, a Catholic priest planted just the right sort of seed in my proto-Reformed heart (mind you, for readers who wax critical of Catholicism due to its recent scandals, just as a cigar is sometimes only a cigar, sometimes a seed just a seed). He asked me what we were learning in school, and I replied that we were reading Jonathan Edwards’s ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ in AP US History. I explained that Edwards’s vision of God as a fearful judge dangling sinners like a spider over the pit of hell was sure to shake any complacent non-Christian out of their wits and send them running to Christ for salvation, just as people did precisely when Edwards was reading that sermon in his New England church. I thought this would resonate well with the Catholic priest; the Fatima prayer is, after all, ‘Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy. Amen.’ Or as the Death Cab for Cutie song goes, ‘In Catholic school / as vicious as Roman rule / I got my knuckles bruised by a lady in black. / And I held my tongue / as she told me, “Son, / fear is the heart of love.” / So I never went back.’
But this Catholic priest looked confused. Genuinely bewildered, he asked me, ‘Is God angry?’ I sat there speechless, flabbergasted, in fact, probably somewhat infuriated at these Catholics who don’t take doctrine seriously. But he continued, ‘If God is love, can he really be that angry?’
You could say that this priest didn’t know the first thing about Edwards’s oeuvre. You could say that focusing on ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ fails to take into account Edwards’s metaphysical reflections on the Trinity, his explorations of beauty, his probing into religious affections, his insights into voluntary agency.
Or you could read it another way. You see, this priest was a devotee of the near-equivalent Catholic figure of Edwards to Puritan Christianity: Hans Urs von Balthasar. Both, after all, put beauty close to the heart of their theological reflections, and both talked an awful lot about ‘the glory of the Lord.’ I am aware that Karen Kilby has taken Balthasar to task for his worst speculative excesses and uncritical sexism. However, one excessive theologian can correct another theologian’s excesses, so another possible interpretation is that my Catholic priest friend was using Balthasar to correct Edwards’s worst excesses. Even if Balthasar were excessively speculative, he was able to check Edwards’s excessive morbidity and obsession with hell. Mind you, whatever you think of Balthasar’s ‘dare we hope all men to saved’ argument, Edwards can be a bit off the deep end with his ‘no, they burn’ answer at times.
It was this Balthasarian seed that drew me deeper into the bowels of Anglicanism, and in particular, a view of Anglicanism in which the state’s co-optation of the church is not necessarily the definitive view of the Church of England. After all, the question this priest asked me was a sincere one: how does this excessive view of hell display the glory of the Lord? While Piper might argue that it displays the absolute sovereignty of God, Balthasar would be quick to note that this sovereign Lord descended into hell on Holy Saturday, emptying himself of power to go to the dead. It is this hiatus, the silence in the death of God, that the logic of our theology is re-constituted, where the beautiful glory of the Lord is most definitively seen in the figure of Jesus, the one who died, the one who is risen, the one who will come again.
Our Sunday Gospel tells us that the Paraclete will draw us into all truth, that is, as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger put it in his dialogue with critical theorist Jürgen Habermas (whom he was attempting to draw into all truth as well), the ontological reality that it is this mystic, sweet communion that holds the world together. Assuming that the Holy Spirit guides and directs the neo-Calvinists as our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, they will (of course) be drawn with us into all truth, which means that, if they haven’t already, they will necessarily recognize the ontological reality that we recognize, and the Father and the Son will come to them and make their home with them, along with the rest of us. Our worst excesses will be corrected; our mystic sweet communion will come to fruition. We thus pass the peace to our neo-Calvinist brothers and sisters (yes, believe it or not, there are women in this tribe), acknowledging the peace we have with them even if they can’t bring themselves to acknowledge the peace they have with us.
The passage that was read at my wedding was 1 Corinthians 13. Many will (of course) complain that the passage is not about marital love, that it is in fact about ecclesial love, and that to use it in a wedding is to join Hallmark in taking it out of context. Our Anglican priest’s homily, however, emphasized love within the church over the pride that ‘puffs up,’ placing marriage as a sacrament within the context of the church, and I suspect that it is because of those homiletical reflections that I can’t get the passage out of my head as I conclude this post. I realize that when St. Paul says that when he was a child, he spoke like a child, he thought like a child, he reasoned like a child, he is positing a contrast between the present in which we see through a mirror dimly and the eschatological future when of faith, hope, and love, only love remains. But because the church mysteriously lives an eschatological reality in the present, I can’t help but think that a bit of eisegesis is in order. You see, when I was a child, I spoke like a schismatic, I thought like a theologically insecure neophyte about fundamental doctrines, I reasoned like a ‘solid’ Protestant with an overly romanticized view of the sixteenth century. But now that I have become an adult, I have put childish ways behind me, trading schism for communion, hopefully growing deeper into the truth that holds the world together, the realization that, as Stanley Hauerwas puts it in A Better Hope, ‘the worship of such a God [who works through the church] means that we must pray and pray fervently for the reconciliation of Catholics and Protestants, as our very division wounds not only ourselves but the world itself’ (p. 45-46). I can’t wait for my neo-Reformed brothers and sisters to do likewise.
In this way, Driscoll’s most recent debacle need not be interpreted as him going off the deep end as a neo-Calvinist participating in the worst excesses of American Christianity. Instead, the poor guy is kicking and screaming against the Holy Spirit leading him into all truth. We should thus not issue a green Christian diatribe against him, castigating him for his idiotic sexist and anthropocentric jokes that we take to be a pox on the face of the contemporary church catholic. We should rather extend the peace in the hope that he will be at peace as the Father and the Son make their home with him. Pax Christi.
There is a certain church popping up repeatedly on my news feed advertising a church service that will potentially reach the downtown of the city in which I live. It is an Anglican church, or more precisely put, it is a church that thinks it’s Anglican because it likes liturgy but doesn’t want to become Anglican-extreme, as evidenced by its pastor’s theological blogs on the ‘misconceptions of Anglicanism’ and the ‘dangers of Anglicanism.’ The bottom line of these posts is that Anglicanism has been misconstrued as a ‘man-made ritual,’ which means that in many quarters, it’s lost a sense of the Christian Gospel, which (apparently) is to actively seek to transform the nations with the message of Jesus, which (apparently) ‘is an invitation to turn away from laws and threats, and to believe that Jesus paid it all’ in contrast to a Caesarean existence based on ‘laws and threats.’ Not only is this church seeking to change my city’s culture, but it boldly states on its vision statement that the reason my city is dying because of racism, sexism, and drug abuse, and that the church is failing to address these issues because the Protestant church in my city is numerically shrinking:
The church should be a part of the solution, but it is rapidly dying. In the last survey conducted by Statistics Canada, only 17% of the population in Vancouver consider themselves Protestant and 42% have no religious affiliation.
The suggestion is thus that mainline churches (like Anglican ones) have become so institutionalized and routinized that they’re losing the young people, so not only is this new church going to resurrect my city, but they’re going to tell us Anglicans how we’ve majorly screwed up.
I don’t blame them, as my city is also one of the three fault lines of the Anglican Communion crisis, that is to say, one of the three dioceses in North America where direct actions from the bishop (mostly to do with sexuality) have caused churches to split from the province, seek cross-provincial episcopal jurisdiction, and cause major schism within the worldwide Anglican Communion. This new church seems to have the solution to our problems, of course. Instead of focusing on Anglicanism as the church structure and the man-made rituals, we should rediscover this cool articulation of faith called the liturgy. We should also lay claim to our theology in the Thirty-Nine Articles, which is (obviously) the Anglican statement of faith, just like (duh) every Protestant church has a statement of faith, because (of course) Protestantism is confessional. In fact, Anglicanism is a great missional strategy to reach ‘postmodern’ people because its liturgy is so poetic, and it gives certainty in its theological articulation to an uncertain world. In turn, reaching people strategically will turn the church into a ‘capital base’:
…new churches also become resource bases for all other ministries. Most other independent or para-church ministries need ongoing financial resources, year after year. Once a new church becomes self-supporting it becomes the capital base (manpower, ministry expertise and money) for all other ministries within the city. If it is healthy and continues to grow it becomes a viable and vital partner in building other necessary, specialized and cutting edge ministries within the city. So, if we plant a church we can impact the city and world on a larger scale.
Never mind, of course, sociologist Nancy Ammerman’s analysis in Pillars of Faith that it’s usually parachurch organizations that make the money for congregations. Never mind also that despite the depiction of Vancouver as unclaimed, de-Protestantized territory, there are churches in my city like Tenth Church, Grandview Calvary Baptist Church, and First Baptist Church that are already pulling their share of the weight. This still sounds very nice.
It’s also a profound teaching moment about Anglicanism that is difficult to pass up. And so I shan’t. Let me begin with a question:
Is Anglican liturgy actually strategic? In other words, can you build the church as a capital base with a liturgical strategy?
This is an honest question, partly because many evangelicals nowadays absolutely (and “passionately,” of course) think so. In fact, it’s an increasingly pressing question because the last ten-ish years have witnessed a great awakening among evangelicals regarding something to which evangelicals claim Anglicans have special privilege among Protestant Christians: liturgy. (Never mind that Lutherans, United Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and other Free Church derivatives have all sorts of liturgical traditions too.) Having read the late Robert Webber as well as a few cool new books on “the grammar of faith” while discovering that the guys they love to quote were Anglican (e.g. C.S. Lewis, John Stott), Anglicanism’s “Catholic tendencies” are starting to become cool, poetic, hip. In fact, it may be the mark of the new Christian hipster, that is to say, the portrait of the young Christian as a hipster.
Now, of course, James K.A. Smith writes some pretty cool stuff about liturgy informing everything you do. But this new liturgical fetish weirds me out a little because it’s a bit selective. I mean, you don’t see any evangelicals who have read radically orthodox theologian Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing going off and using the Tridentine Latin Mass as an evangelistic strategy (or maybe Pickstock’s writing is too impenetrable for those working with that scandal called the ‘evangelical mind’). And, of course, within Anglicanism, there are all sorts of liturgies. There’s the established form from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, but unless you’re at my church where people are actually convinced that the poetry of phrases like “it is meet and right so to do” will win people to Christ (while being simultaneously confused as to why there are so many white people at our church), unintelligible language isn’t exactly a marketing strategy (besides the small detail that in Article 24 of the Thirty-Nine Articles, it’s ‘plainly repugnant’ to have a liturgy ‘in a tongue not understanded of the people’). If you want a liturgy ‘understanded of the people,’ you could look to the Book of Alternative Services, but then, the 1662 people will get you for going liberal.
Which, in short, means that when you use Anglican stuff, there are Anglican politics to deal with.
That leads to my next question: is liturgy all there really is to Anglicanism?
Let me submit to you that Anglicanism isn’t really about the liturgy, but rather, all about this dirty word ‘politics.’ Don’t ever forget that the Protestant version of Anglicanism started in the sixteenth century when this sexist king called Henry VIII wanted to get a divorce from his wife, which in turn led to his next wife getting beheaded, the next one dead in childbirth, the next one divorced because she couldn’t speak English (true story), the next one beheaded too because she cheated on him, and the last one survived because, in 007’s words, she was the ‘last rat standing.’ Then the king died, which led to all sorts of problems because half the royal family wanted to become Catholic again (so they killed all the Protestants) and the other half wanted to become Protestant (so they killed all the Catholics), until Elizabeth I came around, decided she liked the Protestant version because it made her (as opposed to the pope) ‘Supreme Governor’ of the Church of England, and achieved what’s called the ‘Elizabethan Settlement,’ which meant that we got a prayer book, a few anti-Catholic diatribes, and a state-sanctioned Protestant religion.
And that leads to my next question: do you really have to deal with all of that junk as a missional church?
Uh, yeah, you do, because when it comes down to it, what this means is that there’s really no such thing as ‘Anglican theology,’ or even ‘Anglican liturgy,’ for that matter. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that we don’t have theologies and liturgies; I’m saying that there are too many of them. There are multiple Anglican theologies and liturgies in conversation (often heated ones) among Anglicans around the world. In technical terms, we call this mess the Anglican Communion. There are evangelicals who actually don’t like the liturgy that much (surprise, you evangelical liturgical entrepreneurs!), there are Anglo-Catholics who like the liturgy too much, there are latitudinarians who don’t really seem to care about liturgy and theology, and there’s every possible combination, permutation, contradiction, and exception to all of the above. We all made a show of getting along when the United Kingdom had this thing called an empire where folks who were technically Anglicans colonized the entire world (which is why the sun never went down on the British Empire), and when that empire fell apart due to budgetary reasons, we called it a communion of provinces, which sounded nice until some of the provinces wanted to bless same-sex unions and ordain gay clergy, which made some of the ex-colonial provinces excommunicate the more liberal provinces, which in turn made some conservative parishes drop out of the old provinces, which in turn has caused a ginormous mess about property rights, which in turn has led to a boiling animosity that has culminated in the voting down of an ‘Anglican Covenant’ that was the last ditch effort to keep the whole thing together.
Which leads to: what really makes you Anglican, then?
What really makes you Anglican is that you plug yourself into this complete mess of a conversation called the Anglican Communion and people in this mess recognize you as plugged in, talk to you as Anglican, and insult your version of Anglicanism.
Great, so do you get to say that you’re just in this conversation?
No. First off, if you’re already a baptized Christian, you find a bishop who likes you (politics, right?). Then you get confirmed with the guy/gal (depending on what you think of women bishops), which is good enough if you want to be a lay person in this conversation. If you want to serve the sacraments, you have to get ordained twice (deaconed, then priested). This process allows you to trace your Christian food chain back up to Augustine of Canterbury.
Not to be confused with his namesake from Hippo, Augustine of Canterbury was a Catholic missionary sent to the British Isles by Pope Gregory ‘the Great’ I, who made the evangelization of Britain one of his top priorities because he saw some slave boys earlier on in his priestly career who were described to him as ‘Angles.’ He thought they looked so beautiful that he called them ‘angels’ (true story), so when he became pope, reaching them with the Gospel was his top priority. Augustine got there, got into major conflict with the existing pagan tribal leaders, managed to convert a few anyway, and started a primatial church at Canterbury that ordained priests and consecrated bishops in the effort to evangelize the island. The trouble was, there were already Christians there before Augustine, and they had also started monasteries (which, incidentally, had much earlier produced a guy called Pelagius that the other Augustine didn’t really like), so there was a lot of conflict between those pre-existing British Christians and the new Roman guys over how the church should operate as a communion. You can read all about the sordid details in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Peoples. They managed to sort it all out (sorta) when the British Christians finally agreed to adjust their Easter date to Rome’s.
In other words, these guys were Anglican Christians because they were a church among this group of people that Gregory liked who were called the Angles, who were in turn collaborating with and at war with other tribes (Saxons, Picts, Scots, Welsh, Irish, etc.) over British Isle turf.
Right away, then, you can see that Anglicanism wasn’t pretty from the get-go. There were conflicts between Christians, and there were conflicts between Christians and pagans, which became conflicts between the Christian church and the state. Some Anglican Christians (like Alcuin of York) eventually worked for the state. Some (like Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Becket) pissed the state off. The state itself pissed itself off, which meant that there were all sorts of colourful wars fought around which dynastic line got to control the state (you know, the Normans, the War of the Roses, etc.). Eventually, these tensions boiled over when that Tudor king, Henry VIII, wanted to consolidate the state, so he straight up took over the church, which (as I said earlier) seemed to work and then didn’t, and then there were radical Puritan strands that tried to take over the Anglican Church and the state, which ended up turning into the not-very-pretty English Civil War and gave us the political theologies of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. When the whole thing got settled, the one group everybody loved to hate were the Catholics, which became very inconvenient in the nineteenth-century when this thing called the Oxford Movement made Anglo-Catholicism a hit with their Tracts of the Times, and then pissed everyone off again when its major leaders (like John Henry Newman) jumped ship to Rome. Et cetera. Et cetera.
As you can see, there’s not much holding this beast called Anglicanism together, except for one thing: somehow, they can all trace their food chain back to Canterbury and the Gregorian mission, and even then, there were some churches and monasteries started before that mission which they had to whip into Catholic line. In other words, with the exception of having Canterbury as an ‘instrument of communion,’ nobody really agrees on much else. Even the Canterbury thing is fraying at the edges now, with the development of the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), a selectively ‘Global South’ Anglican configuration that styles itself as an alternative to the ‘broken instrument’ of Canterbury.
But because even the GAFCON people can technically somehow trace their food chain back to Canterbury, the technical term for the Canterbury thing is apostolicsuccession, that is, Anglicans are part of a church that through Canterbury and Gregory can trace their own food chain back to the apostles. Of course, when I say apostolic succession, I realize that I’m going to be drawn and quartered for completely missing the point of being a missional Anglican: ‘The post-Christian world doesn’t care about apostolic succession! You’re one of those religious scribes and Pharisees interested in the institutionalization of the church!’
Ignoring the fact that you got that criticism of institutionalization from Max Weber’s secular reading of the routinization of charisma and then conveniently imposed it onto your Scriptural exegesis (shhhhh…), let me suggest that apostolic succession is what makes Anglicanism ‘Anglicanism,’ and in turn, is what makes the whole thing Christian.
Why? you ask? Because Michael Ramsey says so.
Michael Ramsey. Archbishop Michael Ramsey?(Does this mean that you don’t actually read Anglican theology?) Yes, actually, as a matter of fact, you should read Michael Ramsey, especially a little book he wrote called The Gospel and the Catholic Church, in which he argues basically that if you dump apostolic succession, you’ve dumped the Gospel. That’s right: lose the Catholic, and you lose the evangelical too, because (in technical theological terms) there is no kerygma without church. As Ramsey argues, if Jesus commanded his apostles to found churches, if you have churches apart from the apostles, then you lose their message too. You have to be able to trace your food chain back to the apostles in order to validate the message. The Gospel is attached to catholicity, and catholicity is attached to the Gospel.
Which brings us back to using Anglicanism as a strategy: it’s not a strategy. By some accounts, it’s barely even a Protestant denomination.
It is a mode of communion, in which–unlike most Protestant denominations that would see politics as dirty (ewww…) and church politics as the worst of politics–we Anglicans see that dirty work as an integral part of our Christian lives.
Let me repeat myself: instead of running away from church politics, Anglicans treat church politics as Christian business as usual. Church politics doesn’t come from a ‘misconception’ of Anglicanism, it is not the ‘danger’ of Anglicanism, and it is not merely ‘man-made.’ It is Anglican Christianity.
This is why these issues have to be addressed. Unlike starting independent congregations where one could claim that what one does or says in the congregation should not be subject to the scrutiny of non-members (an argument that Jennifer Knapp famously pulled against evangelical detractors of her same-sex relationship), claiming Anglicanism puts us into very, very messy communion. It gets nasty. There’s name-calling, people get hurt, there’s backroom deal-making, there’s collusion with state and empire, there are radical movements contesting that collusion, there are charismatic people seeking direct access to God apart from the institution, etc. etc.
What it means to be Anglican is to have your Christian life formed in this mess. In fact, many of the most profound Anglican contributions to wider Christian theological reflection (that is, Christians who don’t trace their food chain back to Canterbury) has been formed by this political insanity. I once read in an introduction to Anselm’s work that despite all of his trouble with the state (exiled twice, poor guy), he never actually reflected on that experience in his theology, preferring rather to muse on metaphysical matters in classics like the Proslogion and Cur Deus Homo. I slightly disagree with that preface writer’s assessment. Instead of driving a wedge between theology and politics, this metaphysical reflection might actually be the way of dealing with nasty Anglican politics. I could go down the laundry list of Anglican thinkers for whom this category might apply–Bede, Anselm, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, Thomas Cranmer, Richard Hooker, J.C. Ryle, John Henry Newman, Dean Inge, Charles Gore, William Temple, C.S. Lewis, Austin Farrer, Michael Ramsey, Rowan Williams, etc.–all of whom did deep metaphysical work in tough political circumstances (and didn’t all agree with each other).
I have to reference The Cloud of Unknowing here because if you’re going to appeal to the Anglican liturgy, the one thing that does actually set the thing apart is the Collect for Purity that we read at every Eucharist service, which happens to be the epigraph to Cloud:
God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires are known, and from whom no secrets are hid, cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you and magnify your holy name, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Cloud of Unknowing then unpacks that, arguing that God is like this amorphous cloud you can never make sense of with sheer intellect. You can only pierce that cloud of unknowing with pure love.
Let me just postulate in turn that you never fully understand this unless you’ve been in the thick of ecclesial political contestation where your intellect just drives you mad and your best ideas still result in bloody conflict.
In short, Anglicanism probably isn’t a great marketing tool, if you’re trying to reach people with an authentic, unvarnished Christian spirituality in order to build a capital base. Anglicanism is religion for the dirty people, the scum of the earth, the scumbags that ‘this generation seeking authenticity’ love to hate for their hypocrisy and pretentiousness. If you want recent examples, our last Archbishop of Canterbury (whom I think did a fabulous job) was often lampooned as an elitist academic. Our current Archbishop of Canterbury (whom I think is also doing a fabulous job) is often called an elitist ex-oil tycoon. Both, if you will, are the scummiest of us Anglican scum. Incidentally, I’m proud of that, because if you really want me to articulate what ‘Anglican theology’ is, it’s being attached to a strand of the Christian church catholic coming down through Augustine of Canterbury whose political scars force its members to consider that the dirt of politics is precisely the place where we are transformed into the image of Christ. After all, it is only there where we learn to treasure the insight that love, not only our intellect, is the only way to pierce the cloud of unknowing. Join us only if you dare.
I’ve been reading Lauren
Winner’s new memoir “Still,” and she has a lot to say about something I would call “hiding in plain sight.”. What I mean by this is that while some of us hide by in fact hiding, others of us hide by being very public about our struggles and our analysis of them; this gives us control over how people perceive our troubles, and also projects the illusion that we are managing to deal with them without the help of others. I suppose I notice this in particular because I recently had the interesting experience of being depressed while writing an article on one’s personal response to depression. I like how it came out, and I’m sure people will read it and think how wonderfully insightful it is, and it is just enough to convince people that surely someone with such deep and wonderful insight does not need further help from them. And this is exactly what I want, you see, because frankly I don’t like to need other people – I don’t want to be vulnerable, so I am very public about my own vulnerability. But I think we need to need (God and others) before we can experience grace, and so hedging ourselves into this space of transparent bullet-proof glass, see-through but unreachable, is something we need to pray about – we need God to rescue us. I suppose that would be my advice to those who recognize this in themselves, but I would also encourage fellow Christians to be on the watch to help those who hide in plain sight – I imagine in many cases they are those you depend on most for spiritual strength.
We’re up, both here at A Christian Thing, and at my blog, Chinglican at Table. It’s the week of Chinese New Year and the auspicious Year of the Dragon. My mother-in-law asked me if the dragon could be correlated with the Satanic figure in Revelation. I pleaded the Fifth. I’m sure, having invoked the dragon in Evangelium Vitae, the late Pope John Paul II would have pleaded equal ignorance, not least because it might have ruined his interfaith Assisi dialogue initiatives.
Theologically interesting as dragons may be, then, I’m going to take a pass at reflecting on them this zodiac year. Stay tuned twelve years later for a reply to my mother-in-law.
Meanwhile, I’ll take this chance to wish Thick Dumpling Skin a happy one year birthday, a momentous event that coincides with Year of the Dragon celebrations.
Thick Dumpling Skin is a blog started by Hyphen magazine publisher Lisa Lee and Asian American actress and food blogger Lynn Chen to explore body image issues in Asian America. They noted a paradox that they’d both experienced, that when they came home to their families, they would receive comments about how much weight they had gained or lost and then, as if there were no contradiction, be told to eat more. As they rightly point out, Chinese New Year epitomizes this madness, with relatives commenting on weight over a big meal where it’s rude to abstain. Such eating schizophrenia within their own families, they suggest, can lead to eating disorders, being insecure about the way one’s body looks and self-medicating by avoiding food, binge eating, or the bulimic combination of both. One year and 50 posts later, and with the recent introduction of a psychotherapist in the person of Ashley Solomon, their site has made it clear that there are resonances with the Asian American community on this issue.
What I’d like to suggest is that what Lisa and Lynn have hit upon is also a theological issue. To bring up theology here might tempt you to hear me as turning into Juliet Yang, Lynn Chen’s character in The People I’ve Slept With, a hilariously caricatured treatment of an Asian North American evangelical with “a family straight out of the Gap catalogue.” If I were to to do this, I’d go straight into a moralizing treatment of why you should take care of your body because it’s made in the image of God. Then, after telling you that keeping your body holy because it’s a temple of the Holy Spirit means that you need to exercise, eat well, and find balance (just as any other self-help guru would say), I’d say that you then need to dress it modestly (which is probably not what just any old self-help guru would say). I wouldn’t put it past Juliet Yang to go in that direction, but I’m also confident that Lynn Chen herself would take a pass on such an imitation.
Juliet Yang (Lynn Chen, right) confronts her sister Angela (Karin Anna Cheung, left) for her promiscuity
I don’t want to take a faux progressive moralizing tack either, telling you that because there are starving people all over the world, we should take all the food that we binge on and give it to the poor. There is a place for this line of thought, especially around issues of food security and the unjust socio-economic-political structures that keep people hungry, but this isn’t the point of Thick Dumpling Skin. And besides, unless this progressivism is pursued with clear-headed thoughtfulness, it can come out sounding awfully paternalistic and colonizing.
Instead, I want to lightly interrogate what Thick Dumpling Skin means by “Asian culture” that leads to the crazy contradicting messages we get about our bodies from family and community. It’s not like Confucius says that Asians have to be thin. It’s rather the discourse that partly is spread in popular media, Asian and American alike, that unlike white people, Asians can keep eating and be skinny as a stick. It’s also the constant comments from friends and family, sometimes subtle, often not, about weight vis-a-vis the perfect body shape an Asian “should” have. Culture, in short, is simply code for the narratives of the body that are communicated in families, churches, and community networks. They are stories about what Asian bodies should look like, which, by the way, means that whether they are deployed by a white mainstream media or our Asian families, they also happen to be deeply racist because they are orientalizing.
By providing a safe space to air out the destructiveness of these orientalizing stories, Thick Dumpling Skin tells a different story, summed up by their tagline: “It’s what’s on the inside that counts.” There are numerous posts about taking a different tack–learning to love yourself for what’s on the inside, complete with spiritual, psychological, and emotional exercises to embrace who you are as a person as opposed to what you look like in hopes that you’ll be actually able to embrace what your body actually looks like because of the radiance of your inner beauty. It’s about pursuing a healthy identity in defiance of the discourses of the skinny Asian proliferating in media and family, to metaphorically “grow some thicker skins, and learn to love them as well.”
I might venture to say that Thick Dumpling Skin is implicitly–and probably without themselves knowing it–offering a theological alternative for bodily practices in Asian American churches. In one place on the blog, Lisa writes that some of the more destructive comments as well as the site for the greatest binge eating to be had around Chinese New Year was the infamous church potlucks. As she elaborates on BlogHer:
Chinese Lunar New Year is just around the corner. What this usually means for me is another one of those potlucks at church, where there’s way too much food prepared by way too many aunties, or a yis as I fondly call them. Like most people, I can’t wait for the hot pots and steamed fish, but as a person who has struggled with my body image, the huge feast brings up complications. In order for me to get my hands on the delicious dishes that they’ve prepared, I have to brace myself for the string of, “Lisa! You’re back! You ______ (insert either lost/gained in blank) weight!”
Lisa Lee (far right) at an “infamous church potluck”
The real question is: what alternatives does the church have to the weighty auntie discourse on the week of Chinese New Year? I’m inclined to take the tack that the Christian faith is a deeply incarnational one with a theology profoundly interested in embodiment. After all, what seemed to piss the early church fathers off the most was when spiritual elitists broadly labeled “Gnostics” denied the importance of the body to Christian spirituality. What Thick Dumpling Skin reveals about the racialized discourse of Asian thin is that it may well be another destructive gnostic ideology that makes no sense in terms of how the human body actually works. You can’t binge eat and stay thin, you can’t starve yourself and stay out of the hospital, and yet this is precisely what this schizophrenic ideology would have us believe. The theological implication that Thick Dumpling Skin may be communicating unawares is that God weeps with us when we destroy our bodies for a gnostic ideology, especially because he welcomes us to his table no matter what our body shape is.
In short, Asian North American churches can really be the church when it moves away from offering a Chinese festival meal where gossip about weight rules the conversation toward the table of the Lord where the gospel reaches those marginalized by the racist discourse of Asian thin. I imagine Jesus extending arms of welcome to the readers of Thick Dumpling Skin. To be a Christian family and a Christian church is precisely not to reproduce practices of patriarchy and orientalization, racist colonial legacies and consumer objectifications of the body. If anything, it is to embody the announcement of the kingdom of God that is itself a proclamation of the end of these regimes of exclusion and the beginning of an age when my body and your body matter because they are cherished members of the Body of Christ. And because of that, when we worship at church, we are sitting at table with Jesus where he offers us his own body and blood to eat and drink.
What I like about Thick Dumpling Skin is that it is simply a forum for stories about body image and eating disorders among Asian North Americans. But what is particularly Christian about this approach, though likely unintentional, is that once these stories get aired, there is something and someone to forgive (which, incidentally, is #7 on a list of 12 things happy people do differently copied from Marc and Angel Hack Life on November 21, 2011). It is as if they were reciting the words of Jesus, that when a brother or sister sins against you, go and show them their fault so as to encourage reconciliation. If family and friends, church and community, have sinned by perpetuating these gnostic narratives that lead to eating disorders, then what better way is there than to put it all out in the open in hopes of a tearful reunion laced with forgiveness?
That’s what a Chinglican Chinese New Year table could really look like. In good Christian fashion, when we air out these stories, they paradoxically are not myopically self-centered. If we’re speaking specifically to Asian North American churches (let’s limit the audience tentatively for practicality’s sake), we’re not just saying, “You hurt me with your comments about my weight.” We’re saying, “These subtle hints about body image constitute a gnostic ideology that we together should consider abandoning for a more orthodox practice of incarnational welcome.” Part of that welcome is forgiveness, which is why at a Chinglican Chinese New Year table, you might look around the table, and it’s all of these people you’ve had to forgive, not least because they’ve probably also forgiven you too for something else unrelated. After all, Chinglicans do pray with the rest of the church, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Thick Dumpling Skin reveals the trespasses that must be forgiven so that you can pass the roasted pig, the abalone, the sea cucumber, the hairy fat choy, and your parents’ Chinese soup without the shame of conforming to an impossible and racist body image and the guilt of being complicit in proliferating this discourse.