Tuesday, April 22, 2014

SO JUST WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE?: 3RD EPISTLE TO THE NEVADANS

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

         I have been pleased that in response to the first two Epistles to the Nevadans, people have suggested various topics I should attempt to elucidate. It is a mark that God has answered our baptismal payer that you should have “inquiring minds.” We will get to many topics in due course.

         But in this Easter Season it seems good to consider the whole question of “belief.” Just want do we Episcopalians believe anyway? Joe once told his Baptist friend Fred he was an Episcopalian. Fred said, “Oh that’s the Church that believes in drinking.” “No,” Joe said, “Some of us drink but we believe in Jesus.”

         Some “religions” – that’s actually a Western sort of a word. Many of the world’s spiritual systems and organizations wouldn’t necessarily have chosen that word for themselves. It’s just our Western way of categorizing them – some “religions” like to say they don’t have beliefs, just practices or disciplines. They equate “belief” with holding an opinion, usually one for which there is little or no evidence. They see beliefs as closing the mind, not opening it. So they regard us “believers” as narrow and unbright.

         So permit me, if you will, to start by asking what we mean by “believe” before we get to the substance of “beliefs.” The New Testament word pistevo comes into the Church thorugh the Latin credo (from which we get Creed because the “I believe” was for centuries upon centuries pronounced “Credo.” Credo does not mean, “I hold the opinion that.” It means – are you ready? – “I give my heart.”

         Now the second point about Creeds: they do not say, “I believe that.” They say, “I believe in” – as in the Don Williams country classic “I believe in you.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Biz5kBIAtic (if you get an ad at the beginning, it’s short, just avert your eyes]. To “believe in” is both more and less than to “believe that.” It isn’t so sure about details. But it invests trust. It is a deep statement. I place my life in your hands. I can believe in you without knowing everything about you. But obviously I must have some sense of you, some intuition of your heart and soul.

         The Latin credo found its way into English as beleven, same root as beloved, and it means, “I give my love.” This is not just an emotional thing. It is a placing of ones life in the hands of someone else. It is the basket where we put the existential eggs of our life’s meaning. So let’s be clear on this up front, traditional Christian belief isn’t dogmatic opinions. It’s faith like that Don Williams song.

         So where do we place our faith? I heard an NPR interview with an atheist this week – not one of those snide cynical atheists, but a decent, humble, intelligent guy trying to make sense of it all. He insisted that the reality we know is set in the vast context of a supra-cosmic Reality we cannot know, and that the meaning of everything must be found there and that authentic ethics must be grounded in that Reality. He just didn’t like the word “God.” I felt sure that atheist and I would disagree about a lot of things, but that we were closer in our hearts than I am to some theists. We don’t believe in an Old English word. We believe in the Reality. My difference with the atheist is that, for whatever reason, he rejects the narratives, the rituals, and sacred traditions that make up our way of reaching out toward the Mystery. But we agree about the Mystery.

         The question of “belief” went off track in the 16th Century when Christians had a huge family fight including torturing and killing each other. The stakes having gotten mortally high, they needed to tie things tied down precisely so you could know whom to kill, whom to hide from, and whom you could hang out with. So they took the old Creeds, which had been essentially narratival love poems, and replaced them with rather ponderous and lengthy “Confessions” – hundreds of pages of them. If you believe the 350 page Augsburg Confession you can be a good Lutheran. If you believe the 550 page Westminster Confession, you can be a good Calvinist. And so on. The Catholics kept up at the Council of Trent turning all sorts of explanations that had once attempted to just help people understand what they were doing in Church into dogmas to be believed on pain of excommunication. It was a bad time for all of us. No one came out of that century with clean hands. And let me never deny that religion, my religion that I love, has plenty of sin of which to repent.

         But since the days of Elizabeth I, we Anglicans have by and large not done much in the way of Confessions. We had the 39 articles but they only go for 2 pages, and don’t really get a lot of play except in our very most conservative churches. You will find them in the historical documents appendix of the Book of Common Prayer. We are still a Creedal Church, but not a Confessional Church.

         So how does that work? Let’s take a question that might well be on our minds this Easter season. We say in the Creed “We believe in One Lord Jesus Christ . . .. On the third day he rose from the dead.” What do we mean by that? How does the Resurrection work?

         I am just wading into a challenging but brilliant book by the physicist-theologian Robert John Russell, Time In Eternity. Early on he traces the modern teachings about the meaning of the Resurrection. One main line goes back to Rudolf Bultmann. For him the Empty Tomb is irrelevant. The appearances to the disciples are everything because the Resurrection means Jesus lives on in the memories, hearts, minds, and actions of his followers. No problem with science there. It puts science in one world; faith in another. Bultmann taught a subjective resurrection.
        
         But Karl Barth taught an objective Resurrection. Something actually happened. When we say Jesus rose from the dead, we don’t mean we thought of him fondly and acted accordingly. We mean something earthshaking (literally) happened.

Ok, but what was it? The Barth objective resurrection has two forms. Number one is from Arthur Peacock: the Personal Resurrection. The Jesus who rose was his spirit or soul. It really is Jesus, but Jesus is not identified with the protoplasm that made up his body at the moment of his death (our protoplasm pretty much changes out every few years anyway so we should not over-identify with it.) For him the Empty Tomb doesn’t matter, but the Resurrection appearances do – but they matter differently than for Bultmann. For Peacock, the real Jesus actually appeared.

Option two: the Bodily Resurrection. This would go back to a modern theologian, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and – stop and take this in – the physicist-theologian Russell is arguing in support of this one. Yep, the material flesh and blood body of Jesus of Nazareth climbed out of that tomb. It may not have been the same. Something happened, something way more mysterious and miraculous than a mere resuscitation. But it was of this earth, not just of this spirit.

Now when I first came back to the Church, the Bultmann resurrection worked for me. It was as far as I could have gone then. Somewhere around the time I was ordained or maybe a little later, I came to believe in the Peacock version of Barth’s objective Resurrection. It was my encounters with the Risen Lord through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola that took me there.

These days, with fear and trembling, I sign up with Pannenberg and Russell. I hold with the bodily Resurrection even though I don’t pretend to have a clue how it happened. It wasn’t visiting the elegantly appointed tomb in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher that changed my mind, though it was moving. It was the other tomb, the unmarked rarely visited one way off in the corner of the Church, the one some archaeologists think is more likely to be where Jesus was buried. It was crouching, nearly crawling into that dank hole, finding my way by the flashlight app on my smart phone. It was personally experiencing the emptiness of death in that empty stone niche that made me feel and believe that it had no power over any part of him.

So, like Luther, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” But unlike Luther, I do not insist that you stand with me. That’s the difference between doctrines and dogmas. We can have inconsistent doctrines that remain part of the conversation. They keep it interesting. Dogmas end the conversation.

You see because we worship an infinitely mysterious God, we are a religion of questioning, a religion of more questions than answers. In her winsome new book, Plato At The Googleplex, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein says,
        
         The thing about Plato is that he rarely presents
         himself as giving us the final answers. What he insists
         upon is the recalcitrance of the questions in the face
         of shallow attempts to make them go away.

The same might be said of Job who wasn’t buying the Proverbs or of Jesus whose parables were zingers that undid the expectations of his listeners. Followers of Jesus aren’t too sure of their answers. They are free to love the questions precisely because they trust the Mystery. As Rainer Maria Rilke so famously said:

         Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart
and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very
foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers which
will not be given to you because you would not now
be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything.
Live the questions now. Perhaps, then you will gradually
without noticing it, live along some distant day into
the answer.

To believe in this way is to love the questions trusting the Mystery to lead us deeper into truth and hope and love.

         I am not there yet. For example, I don’t know that my opinion about the nature of the Resurrection is more right than it was when I first began this journey so long ago. At first I experienced the wild absurd leap of subjective faith taken by my fellow believers. Then I met the Resurrected Lord in prayer, though not his physical self. Then I felt the emptiness of death in what may have been his very tomb. And so my experiences changed my opinions. I hold this opinion now. It is even a conviction. But it isn’t what I “believe in.” I believe in Jesus. The Resurrection is part of his story, part of who he is. But I do not pretend to understand it or to claim my views on it are better than someone else’s. Others believe too. Others trust the Mystery. Even that fellow on NPR who fancies himself an atheist trusts the Mystery, believes in the transcendent meaning and value of this whole fragile place we call earth, even hopes and trusts that the oft absurd chapters of this story we call history cohere into a never ending story we call eternity.
        


Saturday, March 29, 2014

ETERNITY AND I AM: WHY IT'S REALLY OK TO TALK ABOUT GOD

         I cannot wait for Time In Eternity by Robert Russell to arrive in the mail. It’s a physicist’s connection of science and Christian teaching dealing with the really big stuff. What is Eternity? What is time? How do they connect? When it comes, I may find that it is over my head. Or it may prove everything I am going to say here to be wrong. The former is likely. The latter – I don’t think so.

         Eternity is the very heart of my faith. It’s where I place my faith. It’s the basket where I keep my existential eggs. And it’s why my faith may or may not be true, but it is just nowhere near as dumb as secular cynics insist on thinking it is.

         On the one hand Eternity is beyond the grasp of the mind. We cannot conceive of it. It is too big for us to comprehend and it is therefore ultimately mysterious. On the other hand, it is the sort of thing philosophers call “a necessary truth.” We cannot deny it. Eternity cannot be comprehended but it is impossible not to imagine. Finitude cannot be imagined. For example, we once thought the universe was infinite in space. But now scientists say it is elliptical. There is an edge to the universe. Ok, if there is a border to the universe, what is on the other side? We cannot imagine a border with only one side. Once we thought the universe had existed for all eternity. Now we know, to the extent we can know anything, it actually began at a certain point. Ok, what was before that? It may have been very slow moving. But what was there before the moment when the universe exploded into being? We cannot imagine reality that is not set in the context of Eternity.

         Russell’s physics may tell us more about Eternity and more importantly about the connection between Eternity and time by which I mean the temporal realm in which we live our lives and history progresses, or regresses, whatever it is doing. But I don’t need physics to persuade me that Eternity is the context of the temporal realm. I cannot imagine otherwise. If we were to diagram Reality, it would be two concentric circles – a huge one on the outside and a small one in the center. The small circle would represent the temporal realm. The large one would represent Eternity, though of course its circumference would be a fictional line just to help us see. It really has no outer border. One thing leaps out about that diagram. Eternity exists outside time, but it also is inside time. The big circle includes the small one. So Eternity is both immanent (in all things) and transcendent (extending infinitely beyond all things). I bet you see where this is heading.

         So where does God fit in this picture? We might hypothetically posit the existence of a being outside time living in the eternal realm. That is a fairly wild speculation. It is what many atheists mean by “God.” But such a being would be like a random shard, a second free-floating circle inside the larger circle. It frankly says nothing coherent and would not be what classical ancient orthodox Christianity means by “God.”

         If we understand God to be eternal at all, then God cannot be in any respect, temporal or spacial, smaller than Eternity. Eternity on the other hand, by definition, cannot be limited either temporally or spatially. God cannot fit inside Eternity. Eternity cannot fit inside God. So what is the connection between God and Eternity? They would be co-terminus if either of them were “terminus” at all but they are not. Here’s the thing: being eternal cannot be an attribute of God along with other attributes that God might or might not possess. Eternity has to be God’s very essence.

         That leads inexorably to this fundamental point: “God” is not a word we use to posit the existence of a being that might or might not exist. “God” is a word we use to say things about Eternity, which is impossible not to imagine. Granted we could say Eternity without using the word “God.” Then we would be saying Eternity is eternal, nothing more – not very interesting, indeed what Wittgenstein called a tautology. That may be all we can truly prove by reason. But to describe Eternity with the word “God” is to invite imaginative, intuitive statements about the foundational nature of reality. It is to invite us into a conversation that we cannot readily have without the word “God.” (I did not make this up. It’s pure Karl Rahner.) To call Eternity “God” is to express our awe and reverence, perhaps devotion. To call Eternity “God” is to open the possibility of hope that, while the temporal realm is decidedly an unsatisfactory mix of blessings and curses, Eternity may be beneficent and therefore a source of hope that the losses of this life may be redeemed, that wrongs may be set right, and that love may in that realm conquer all after all.

         What then do we say about God, and therefore about Eternity, and therefore about “the way things are deep down and forever?” The answer would be the entire field of theology. But here’s a handy way to start. “I Am” is the name for God in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the Gospel of John, there are eight “I Am” statements.  The number is not an accident. There are seven days in a week. The eighth day is the ancient symbol of eternity. That’s why baptismal fonts have eight sides, to signify birth into Eternal Life. Read casually, the “I Am” statements sound as if Jesus is just talking about himself. But when one remembers “I Am” is the name of God and that the number eight signifies Eternity, then every “I Am” statement in John becomes a truth claim about the nature of Eternity. They are metaphorical but evocative. “I Am the good shepherd.” “I Am the Way (Tao), the Truth (Dharma) and the Life (Qi).” Big stuff. Not something we can grasp, but something we can ponder.

         Theology attempts to bring the I Am closer to our ability to comprehend. It is Being (Aquinas), Suchness (Eckhart), the Ground of Being (Tillich), the Wholly Other (Barth), the Whence and the Whither (Rahner). But in the end (not an end to the subject which has no end but an end to our capacity which we reach all too soon) in the end, it is the mystery signified by the enigmatic name of God, I Am, elucidated by metaphors such as vine and light of the world.

         Is it absurd to stand in awe of Eternity, which makes the night sky over the ocean seem small? Is it unsophisticated to ask whether an Eternity that generates and holds in being this temporal realm may not be creative and if so to ask the impetus of this creativity? Is it na├»ve to hope that temporality is so unsatisfactory precisely because it is temporal, and that our hearts are unsatisfied because they long for Eternity having been born of Eternity and made for Eternity, as Augustine (an intellectual giant compared to today’s critics of belief) claimed long centuries ago?


         Religion is inherently a project of babbling about the mystery; so we cannot be dogmatic. We cannot claim we are right and all who disagree with us are wrong. That would be not only foolish, it would be irreverent because we would be pretending to know God better than we do, pretending God is small enough to be known so completely. We may not be right in what we say about Eternity. But it is wiser to ask the questions and humbly to posit answers than to dismiss the very meaning and purpose of our existence with a shrug.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

THE FUTURE OF THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH: A MINORITY REPORT

     What does the future hold for the Episcopal Church? There are those of us who care. We may have our share of frustrations with and criticisms of the Church. I certainly do. But she has been our lifeline too many times for us to dismiss her. So we care.

     It is in vogue to say the Church is a dead letter. Spirituality may survive in some vague, subjective way so long as it doesn’t actually say anything other than banal affirmations and so long as it does not demand anything inconvenient of people who have more important commitments. But the Church, the institution, the network of committed relationships among people who disagree about most things but share the most important things – who have a common intuition of where we came from, where we’re going, and what it all means – that family is fading fast and the diagnosis is terminal. Many Church folks have adopted a posture of fatalistic pessimism. Many small churches mourn for the death of their congregation even though they are still very much alive. And religion pundits sometimes talk about our impending death with a thinly veiled glee. So what do I say about the future of the Church?

     All futures are uncertain. History is written. The future isn’t. So let’s start with acknowledging that we don’t know. If we don’t know, then what attitude shall we take – despair, hope, curiosity? As Christians our attitude might well be informed by a theology of the future. Here is one: God has a desire and a plan for the Church. “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11 But God will not impose the divine plan on us. Rather God give us a choice. “I set before you life and death, blessing and curse . . . . Choose life. “ Deuteronomy 30: 19 Cf Jeremiah 21: 8 God invites us into a future and offers us the strength and resources we need – the manna in the wilderness – to become what we are called to be. Whether we as a community consent to become what God wants us to be is, however, up to us. I am troubled by the suspicion that our pessimism is a way of saying “We can’t make it” because we don’t really want to show up. We don’t want to show up because becoming who God calls us to be will be costly. It threatens to cost us everything.

     Now to speak sociologically: I was recently talking with a religion analyst about our decline. It reminded me of one of my favorite scenes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The plague is on and a mortician is going about with a cart removing corpses from homes for a small fee.

Mortician:           Bring out your dead.
Customer:          Here’s one – 9 pence.
Dead person:    I’m not dead.
Mortician:           What?
Customer:          Nothing – here’s your nine pence.
Dead person:    I’m not dead!
Mortician:           Here – he says he’s not dead.
Customer:          Yes he is.
Dead person:    I’m not!
Mortician:           He isn’t.
Customer:          Well, he will be soon. He’s very ill.
Dead person:     I’m getting better.
Customer:          No, you’re not. You’ll be stone dead in a moment.
Mortician:           I can’t take him like that – it’s against regulations.
Dead person:    I don’t want to go in the cart.
Customer:         Oh don’t be such a baby.
Mortician:           I can’t take him.
Dead person:    I feel fine.
Customer:          Oh do us a favor.

The analyst showed me a graph of the membership of the Episcopal Church in recent years. There was a sharp downturn – not surprisingly corresponding to the years of the schism when five dioceses left the denomination and some parishes split off from dioceses that remained in the fold. However, the last couple of years showed a sharp rebound in Episcopal Church membership. I asked what that might suggest. He said it didn’t mean anything because church membership figures are inherently unreliable. I grant in a heartbeat that membership is not a reliable number. However, my point is that we find membership numbers significant when they show decline, but not when they show growth. I sense a bias in how we read numbers.

     If membership means anything at all, this might be of interest. I cannot find my source for this, but I have been told that the membership of the Episcopal Church today is the same percentage of the American population that it was in the 1920s. Granted that is much smaller than it was in the 1960s but it does put things in a certain perspective.

     Most dioceses I know are reporting growth in attendance. We all have some parishes growing and some shrinking. My experience is that growth and decline shift among parishes in different years. But generally speaking, it’s going pretty well out there in the mission field. The hole in that good cheer is the plight of small town churches. As jobs leave small towns, people go with them, especially young people. That takes a genuine toll on small town churches. But somehow dioceses are reporting increased attendance on the whole. I don’t have official CPG statistics on this. But when I ask how it’s going, Bishops are telling me it’s going well in that respect. Moreover, as people’s schedules are changing, church life is expanding beyond Sunday mornings into various kinds of gatherings for prayer, study, and worship throughout the week in forms that are not generally part of any measuring reports. Theology on Tap for example is bringing untold young people into the Episcopal circle, but no one is counting them.

     Speaking of young people, what about the Millennials – the generation we have supposedly lost? Three points about Millennials:

1.In American Grace, Robert Putnam observes that there is a stage of life factor and there is a stage of history factor in measuring church affiliation. Millennials are at the stage of life when they tend not to affiliate with church; and this is a stage of history with lowered church affiliation. The combination of the two factors makes the statistics on the millennial exodus more dramatic. In other words, the stage of history factor is real but the stage of life factor makes it look like a bigger deal. The pessimistic statisticians report the total as if it were all stage of history.

          2. Now let’s put the stage of history factor in context: Church
 affiliation has declined during an era when all voluntary associations have declined. Every group from the Kiwanis to the NAACP to the neighborhood bowling league have lost membership. See Putnam, Bowling Alone. So our self-recriminations about what we Church folks have done wrong are excessive. We have been through an era of disassociation from civic groups (including all voluntary associations). I don’t meant to let us off the hook completely, but we have primarily been part of that broader trend. The important fact observed by Gilbert Rendle is that American society over the course of history has repeatedly come together in those voluntary associations, vaunted by Alexis de Tocqueville as essential to our free republic, and then seen those associations disintegrate, in order to come together again in new ways. It is a recurring cycle. We have been on the downswing and are nearly due for the next upswing.

3. But let’s acknowledge that there is a special sociological trend that makes the Millennial/ Church situation particularly strong. True, there is an exodus of Millennials from churches. But they are for the most part fleeing from the fundamentalist churches that surged in the 80s and 90s as a backlash against the anti-establishment excesses of the 60s and 70s. The number one adjective people under 30 use to describe Christians is “anti-homosexual.” The old saw that our LGBT inclusion is the cause of our decline is flat wrong when it comes to Millennials. We are in fact ahead of the curve on that point. I have known a good number of young straight people who joined our Church precisely because we are inclusive. For the very reason that overall Millennial/ Church affiliation has declined in recent years, the Episcopal Church is well positioned to attract Millennials when they come to the re-afilliation stage of life.

     The summary conclusion on Millennials is that they are not less spiritually and religiously inclined than their ancestors. They are different and the Church must make some changes in order to be in relationship with this new generation – but without exception, I believe these changes are for the good. The Millennials insist on integrity, authenticity, and mission. They want to see a Church put its time and money where its mouth is. They are not formally affiliated with us now but Millennials place a higher value on community than did the Boomers or the Gen-Xers. They are intrinsically inclined to affiliate in a way that Boomers and Xers are not. To throw up our hands and write off this generation of young Americans would be to abandon them to a secularism unworthy of their good characters.

     So back to the broader question: what is the future of the Episcopal Church? I do not mean for a minute to sound confident or to suggest that we do not need to take bold energetic action for the future. God invites us into a future excitingly and frighteningly different from our past. “Behold I am doing a new thing. Even now it springs up! Do you not perceive it? I am making a pathway in the wilderness and streams in the desert.” Isaiah 43:19 Some of our old ways will not do. Sometimes “new wine will break old wineskins.” Mark 2: 22 But other old ways, by which I mean ways older than the “contemporary” adaptations of the 70s and 80s – old ways, by which I mean the ancient reverent mysterious ways we have somewhat forgotten in our modernizing impulses – these old ways may be the key to our future. “The Scribe who is trained for the Kingdom of God is like a householder who brings out of the storehouse things that are old and things that are new.” Matthew 13: 52

     So here are my three fundamental and absolutely simple points about the future of the Episcopal Church:

1.The future is unwritten. We don’t know what is coming next. The prophets of gloom are expressing an attitude, not a proven fact.

2. God invites to a future of hope and spiritual prosperity. If we don’t want that, we should just say so instead of hiding behind pessimistic fatalism. If we die, it will be an act of ecclesiastical suicide.

3. We must not change in order to survive. That would be self-serving and unbearably boring. We must change in order to dance into the new thing that God is doing, to experience the surprise and delight of grace erupting in new ways.