Saturday, August 30, 2014


                     Do We Have Anything Of Interest To Say?

         Three things recently collided in my head and left me with a disturbing concern about 21st Century churches. But let me preface this by saying my concern arises in the midst of an encouraging context. Episcopal congregations in Nevada that had once abandoned the project of education and formation are actively engaging that work again. Congregations large and small, urban and rural are waist deep in the 2nd Mark of Mission, teaching and nurturing new believers. Here as elsewhere, the congregations that offer education strongly tend to have better worship attendance, stewardship, and community outreach. The Episcopal Church has made a powerful commitment to education with the Covenant for Adult Formation and Lifelong Learning. But while much of the Church is abuzz with learning, that very enthusiasm casts in sharp relief those congregations that have lost the faith that we have anything distinctive, helpful, or interesting to say.

         The event that set off my concern was asking a group of Church leaders what they thought a person might need to know in order to live the Christian life. They had various good ideas about the how of Christian education but when it came to what we need to teach, the content of a core curriculum, they were stumped. I might have hoped they would say the life and teachings of Jesus, Holy Scripture, the Creeds, the rituals, the examples of the saints, the story of salvation, moral teachings about theological and cardinal virtues, the stuff that makes us who we are. But none of them named anything that anyone needed to actually know in order to practice Christianity well. These are not marginal Church attenders. They are our best and our brightest. I mean this as no criticism of those Church leaders, but as a question about what has happened to the Anglican ethos that our best and brightest do not have a sense that the faith has a core content to be imparted. This is so foreign to the thinking Episcopal Church I have long known and loved. It is so foreign to the Church where one of 10 reasons to join it is “you don’t have to check your mind at the door.”

         Once I might have jumped to the conclusion that this rejection of catechesis per se was a uniquely Nevada problem – that it reflected the anti-academic/ anti-intellectual culture of our state. But the other thing already rolling around in my consciousness told me in no uncertain terms that the Nevada Church leaders were far from alone. I had just been reading Huston Smith’s Beyond The Post Modern Mind. Smith offers a broad brush sweeping intellectual/ theological history of Western Civilization moving from the Christian View of a personal relational reality in which ultimate values were knowable through reason and revelation from a personal God but the material world was a puzzlement; to the Modern View in which the material world was perfectly knowable and controllable through science but anything not scientifically provable was sheer fantasy; to the Post Modern View in which nothing either spiritual or material is really knowable, provable, sayable, or meaningful, and to say anything at all is suspect as it might repress something someone else might be silently thinking.

What could Christians say in the Post-Modern World View? According to Smith, not much. Basically we were reduced to: “We don’t actually know anything. But we hope it’s going to be alright somehow and we invite you to hold our hand while we hope and act as if this whole human project might mean something even though we haven’t a clue what it is.” Just so, our Church leaders thought personal relationships and the fellowship of Church (holding our hand) were important to help people feel better, but they didn’t have a clear sense that there is anything important we have to say.

Smith’s basic point would have been intuitively obvious to most of the people who have ever lived, but for us it is a controversial counter-cultural claim. The point: we need a worldview. Without a worldview that says something about right and wrong, true and false, meaningful and meaningless, we have no roadmap. We are lost in the Post Modern maze. That is why it is so important for us to think, to speak, and to ask questions about the big issues. For thousands of years, we have dared to speak albeit humbly about great things. To despair of speaking is to despair of encountering. Such despair makes our world small and desperate. To live effectively in the world one needs a frame of reference, a worldview. Such a worldview, Smith says, can be expressed in narratives (hence people need to know the great stories), but only up to a point. Conflicting narratives have to be reconciled by philosophy and theology.

Post Modernity’s radical skepticism has rejected both narrative and the right of theology or philosophy to say anything about the source, foundation, destiny, or meaning of life. It rejects these sources of truth in order to unfetter the creative individual. Radical skepticism, however, has not produced a burst of creative individual genius but rather a splitting of the world into two mobs: one of unthinking nihilistic despair and another mob of unthinking fundamentalist absolutism. We do need to get on beyond the postmodern mind and we need to get beyond it right away because it is causing intolerable wrongs. Christians cannot help us get beyond Post Modernity by placing our hands over our mouths and inviting people to coffee hour.

The third thing rolling about in my mind and banging up against our doubt that we have anything to say is a recent blockbuster of a book by my favorite systematic theologian, David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss. I love this book, book but don’t recommend it to anyone who doesn’t speak the language of academic philosophy and metaphysics. It’s a jargon and Hart speaks it with a razor sharp aggressive polemical wit. First, he demonstrates that the philosophical assumptions of both modernity and post modernity are themselves irrational leaps of faith. Noting Heisenberg’s insight that “The answers nature gives us depend on the questions we ask,” he shows that the scientific challenges to faith are for the most part a dogmatic and irrational refusal of philosophical materialists to think outside their own arbitrarily constructed box.

For example, some brain scientists observe that thoughts about God correspond to neurological activities in the brain. They then make the irrational leap to conclude that those neurological activities cause the thoughts and God does not actually exist. Even the arch atheist David Hume knew that such assertions are an utterly subjective speculation posing as fact. In all likelihood the scientists’ observations and interpretations correspond to chemical processes in their brains, which by their own reasoning means their observations and interpretations are fantasy. Nothing new in this. Kant told us about it in the 18th Century.

Hart goes on to argue convincingly that great thinkers like Plato and Kant have not been proven wrong by subsequent science or philosophy but rather they are simply “out of fashion.” The Post Modern worldview has not been shown superior to earlier beliefs. It is merely the prevailing fashion.

But the prevailing fashion is not working. It has nothing to say to Ferguson, Missouri about justice and reconciliation (words that Postmodernity renders as nullities). It has nothing to say about tolerance and the sacredness of human life and dignity to Iraq, Syria, or Gaza.

The Christian worldview, on the other hand, has a lot to say about justice and reconciliation. The whole complex image of atonement sustains our defined mission “to reconcile all people to God and to each other in Christ.” We have a lot to say about the sacredness of human life and dignity coming from our doctrines of Creation and Incarnation. “O God who wonderfully created and yet more wonderfully restored the dignity of humankind . . . . .” At a minimum the Christian worldview deserves to be known before it is
rejected. But if people are going to know it, someone has to teach it.

Smith makes a cogent case for having a worldview. He favors one in sync with the broad truths he calls “The Perennial Philosophy” of which Christianity is one expression. Hart makes a cogent case for the intellectual credibility of the Christian worldview. Reality clearly has “a whence and a whither” as Karl Rahner puts it. This dazzling part-chaos part-cosmos miracle into which we have been flung and are flailing about arose somehow from something and is headed somewhere. We experience truth, beauty, and goodness along the way. (Yes, I know that’s Platonist and so “out of fashion” but fashion doesn’t make truth, beauty, and goodness go away.) Can we help but imagine that there is a deepest truth, a most splendid beauty, a greatest value? (Yes I know that’s foundationalist [St. Anselm and St. Thomas Aquinas] and so “out of fashion” – but would things having a foundation be so bad? – the indigenous people of North America imagined this continent floating on a giant sea turtle – we don’t have to say what the foundation is in order to hope that there is one – but once we have imagined that there is a foundation, might we consider that it might express itself to humans in human form – and then we get to Jesus). Speaking of great things is risky. It can lead to scary stuff like faith, hope, and love.

I will grant without a hint of a quibble that only a small percentage of any congregation attends educational programs. But they are the yeast in the community loaf. Galatians 5:9; Matthew 13:33. In The Heart Of The Parish: A Theology Of The Remnant, Martin Thornton argued that clergy and other key leaders would do the church and the world more good by focusing their energy on building up that core group, the heart of the parish, so that they can serve the rest of the congregation and the world outside. Instead we clergy tend to invest most of our time and energy in the folks at the edge of the community who are more apt to be in crisis. Certainly it is crucial to serve the people at the edges and beyond, but that begs the question of who should do it. Thornton thought we needed to attend most closely to empowering the heart of the parish, the 20% of the people who do 80% of the work, to do ministry. We do that chiefly through education and formation programs.

I have been surprised to hear Episcopalians embrace the Post Modern premise that we should not teach people Christian beliefs because it might make them dogmatic, rigid, and arrogant. Granted the ego can warp anything, but in my experience the less people know the more dogmatic, rigid, and arrogant they are about the little they do know (or think they know.) The less educated the congregation the more bombastic it is apt to be. That may be why the radical skepticism of Post Modernity and the fanaticism of fundamentalism have come to the fore together.

Smith’s reminds us that the Perennial Philosophy sets all its truth claims in the context of reverent mystery for the Unknowable. The greatest Christian theologians (e.g., Karl Rahner) maintain that we cannot say anything about God with certainty. We can only use metaphorical language, like the Creeds, to point toward God. At least since the 6th Century (Dionysius the Aereopagite) we have admitted that everything we say about God is more wrong than it is right. So education, if it is honest, does not produce dogmatism, arrogance, and rigidity – quite the opposite. It promotes curiosity, humility, and tolerance.

While we stand silent about Christian belief, less progressive voices speak all too loudly and so define “Christian” in ways that are unhelpful. When I discovered the Episcopal Church, I wanted to embrace it, but there was a huge barrier. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement made no sense to me at all. It was morally and spiritually repugnant. But the Christianity I had known up to then made substitutionary atonement the cornerstone of faith. A priest explained that my roadblock doctrine had not been taught for the first 1000 years of Christianity and that there were multiple other salvific interpretations of the cross. That opened the door for me. But if we do not teach Christian beliefs, will there be anyone to open that door for future seekers as that priest opened the door for me?

I suspect the real reason we do not teach in our churches is that we do not feel competent to do so. But we do not have to be great Bible scholars, systematic theologians, or church historians to introduce Christianity 101. There are plenty of excellent resources that make it imminently do-able. These are a few suggested by Julia McCray Goldsmith of the Diocese of California:

Welcome Series – 8 series introducing Anglican spirituality, the Bible, Episcopal worship -- the real basics.

         Animate – 3 series on faith, scripture, & practice.

         Pro/Claim – a study based on the Baptismal Vows.
         Just Faith – 5 series connecting faith to action.

         N T Wright For Everyone – New Testament book-by-book series. Solid stuff compared to the less reliable speculation that is so popular and likely to mislead.

Teaching the core of the faith can be as simple as playing a video then inviting people to talk about it out of their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. We can stir each other’s hearts and minds to deeper wisdom and richer life.

         “Almighty God, the foundation of all wisdom:
         Enlighten by your Holy Spirit those who teach and those
         who learn, that, rejoicing in the knowledge of your truth,
         they may worship you and serve you from generation
         to generation . . . .” BCP 261

         “God of all wisdom and knowledge, give your blessing
         and guidance to those who teach in your Church, that
         by word and example they may lead those whom they
         teach to the knowledge and love of you .  . . “ BOS 182


ben somerville said...

I like what you had to say. I want to emphasize that the great Majority of leaders do not teach Christianity and the Episcopal Tradition as you suggest because they are part of the post modern thinking, perhaps unawares, but nevertheless. I see and experience most of our current leadership caught up in fear, success driven,& lack of self understanding to the point of not being able to be prophetic, and to teach that is needed. Our c(C)hurch has long been a victim of cultural captivity. Thank you!

Bishop Dan said...

Ben, an interesting and helpful perspective. Do you know Neibuhr's classic Christ & Culture? Anglicanism has always tended toward an easy harmony with the culture. I wonder if that was more comfortable when the culture was more Christian (at least in the sense that the stories, images, and language of faith were evident) -- but in the Post-Modern context, we are more prone to the fear, etc. that you list. Just an off the top of my head speculation. Still I do see some leaders embracing the Covenant for Lifelong Formation and actually engaging the 2nd Mark of Mission. So perhaps there is hope for us yet.

Unknown said...

Apparently, it is easy for even clergy to get lost in the contrivances of man, post-modernism, philosophy, etc. and lose sight of the simple message that is Christ our Lord in all things and in all ways. We must always stand apart from mainstream culture in order to keep perspective on who and what we are while knowing that there is nothing more "hip, slick and cool" as being a Christian! :-)

ben somerville said...

Thanks, it has been a long while since a bishop has responded and neither dismissed nor reacted to my comments. This is hope itself. I also see hope from the laity for the continued life of the gospel of christ, and I hope this spreads to the leadership of the church. Who knows what new structures may become vessels for the news of christ?. I trust that God knows what is as well as what is next.
In love and prayer for us all.

ben somerville said...

Thanks, it has been a long while since a bishop has responded and neither dismissed nor reacted to my comments. This is hope itself. I also see hope from the laity for the continued life of the gospel of christ, and I hope this spreads to the leadership of the church. Who knows what new structures may become vessels for the news of christ?. I trust that God knows what is as well as what is next.
In love and prayer for us all.