Bonhoeffer and the Liberals  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, born in 1906, was executed by the Nazis in the Flossenburg concentration camp on this date in 1945.I did not read much by him when I was younger, but I got the impression that he was a major figure in "liberal" theology, however one wishes to define that.  However, a reading of Eric Metaxas' biography Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson, 2010) revealed that his theology was in fact quite orthodox and traditional.  This comes  out in chapter 7, which deals with his time at Union Theological Seminary in New York, a postdoctoral year following the receipt of his doctorate in theology from Berlin University.  It seems that Bonhoeffer got more spiritual nourishment at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church, where he taught Sunday school, than in the rarefied atmosphere of Union.  He writes of his experiences in a number of letters which are quoted below.

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There is no theology here [at Union Theological Seminary]...They talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria.  The students--on the average twenty-five to thirty years old--are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about.  They are unfamiliar with even the most basic questions.  They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level...

...the lack of seriousness with which the students here speak of God and the world is, to say the least, extremely surprising...Over here one can hardly imagine the innocence with which people on the brink of their ministry, or some of them already in it, ask questions in the seminar for practical theology--for example, whether one should really preach of Christ.  In the end, with some idealism and a bit of cunning, we will be finished even with this--that is their sort of mood.

The theological atmosphere of the Union Theological Seminary is accelerating the process of the secularization of Christianity in America.  Its criticism is directed essentially against the fundamentalists and to a certain extent also against the radical humanists in Chicago; it is healthy and necessary.  But there is no sound basis on which one can rebuild after demolition.  It is carried away with the general collapse.  A seminary in which it can come about that a large number of students laugh out loud in a public lecture at the quoting of a passage from Luther's De servo arbitrio on sin and forgiveness because it seems to them comic has evidently completely forgotten what Christian theology by its very nature stands for...

...Things are not much different in the church.  The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events.  As long as I've been here, I have heard only one sermon in which you could hear something like a genuine proclamation, and that was delivered by a Negro (indeed, in general I'm increasingly discovering greater religious power and originality in Negroes).  One big question continually attracting my attention in view of these facts is whether one here really can still speak about Christianity....There's no sense to expect the fruits where the Word really is no longer being preached.  But then what becomes of Christianity per se?



She Could Have Said No  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Today's feast of the Annunciation is one of the more outrageous commemorations on the church calendar, outrageous at least by the standards of 21st-century secularism, which impacts us all to some extent.  God communicates--via an angel--with  an illiterate Jewish peasant girl and asks her to get pregnant out of wedlock.  I was struck by  the following observation on this event posted on the site of St Paul's Antiochian Orthodox Church in Brisbane, Australia.  Hat tip to The Society of Catholic Priests.

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When Mary the Virgin was about fourteen years old, the Archangel Gabriel came to Joseph's dwelling, where she was living, and said to her, "Rejoice, Thou Full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee:  blessed art Thou among women."  Receiving assurance that she had been chosen to be the Mother of God Himself, she answered in humility, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to Thy word."  Immediately, the Holy Spirit came upon her, the power of the Most High overshadowed her, and the Incarnation, long awaited by the whole creation, took place:  He who contains the whole universe consented to be contained in the womb of one woman, the most holy Theotokos.

The Church teaches us that it was within the Holy Virgin's power to refuse the divine conception:  her knowing and willing acceptance, the consummation of the faith of the whole righteous remnant of Israel, shows us that our very salvation is the fruit of the cooperation (synergia) of human faithfulness with God's saving grace.

Giving Up Anger For Lent  

Posted by Joe Rawls

I was invited to give this morning's homily, followed by group discussion, at Mt Calvary Monastery (Anglican Order of the Holy Cross) in Santa Barbara, California.  The Gospel text was Matt 5: 20-26.  A few days earlier I fortunately came across the quote from St Basil the Great which provided the conceptual hook for my remarks.

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The Gospel:  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  You have heard that it was said to the men of old, "You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgement."  But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says "you fool!" shall be liable to the hell of fire.  So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.  Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny.

The homily:  Anger is hard to get rid of.  It gets enmeshed with our ego.  We don't like having people cheat us or walk over us.  Sometimes it seems like our anger is the only thing no one can take away. 

Religious people are definitely not anger-proof.  Perhaps we are even more susceptible to anger, at least the deeply-rooted sort of anger, because we're taught from an early age that repressing anger is somehow virtuous.  I've heard a number of people in vows say that obedience is the toughest, tougher than poverty or celibacy, because, of the three, it has the greatest potential for generating anger.  Evagrius Ponticus, in his fourth-century work on prayer, spends more time talking about anger than about lust or gluttony or greed.  So this business of anger has been around for a while.

When I was younger, most of my anger was directed towards women who didn't want to go out with me, or who blew me off after one date.  I've been with a terrific woman for 37 years now, but I still have to deal with my other major source of anger, the Church.  For various reasons, the Church periodically slams doors in my face.  I once lost my temper with a former rector and called him  a "fool", thereby making me liable, I suppose, to the "hell of fire".

What to do with  anger?  I am not a hermit on Mt Athos or a Tibetan rinpoche, so the notion that I might somehow evolve to the point where I am totally anger-free seems dangerously naive.  A few days ago I gratefully stumbled across a quote of St Basil the Great, another Church Father from the fourth century, that someone posted on Facebook.  It reads:

True fasting is the estrangement from evil, temperance of tongue, abstinence from anger, separation from desires, slander, falsehood and perjury.  Privation of these is true fasting.

Instead of beating ourselves over the head for not being able to let go of anger altogether, let's try to aim for an "anger fast", both during this Lent and during the days to follow.  Fasting from food is not a permanent condition.  Most of us will never totally get rid of anger, at least this side of the afterlife, but I think going on anger fasts of increasingly longer duration is quite reasonable--and doable. 

George Herbert and the Eucharist  

Posted by Joe Rawls

A concise treatment of Herbert's approach to the Eucharist can be found on the excellent Anglican Eucharistic Theology site, the work of Australian Anglican priest Dr Brian Douglas (see the link in the outer sidebar).  Herbert's views are contained in A Priest to the Temple, or the Country Parson, published after his death in 1633.  His poem, The Holy Communion, is particularly expressive in this regard.

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Herbert's poem expresses the view that Christ is present and conveyed...not in rich or golden things, but in the ordinary elements of bread and wine.  The presence of Christ is able to be fully in the person who receives ("which spread their force in every part") and to deal effectively with sin ("Meeting sinnes force and art").  The elements convey what they signify ("Onely thy grace, which with these elements comes") and are the means of grace in the life of the person who receives them.  The idea of the heavenly communion is again mentioned ("my bodie also thither") and it is in this communion that a person is joined to Christ ("Them both to be together").  Clearly the Eucharist is distinguished from other earthly food in the final verse and so the implication of the poem is that the presence of Christ in the elements is not a fleshly or immoderate presence, yet a real presence, to "which I can go."  It must be assumed then that Herbert's theology of the Eucharist is that of moderate realism. 

St Scholastica  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Today is the feast day of Scholastica, the twin sister of Benedict of Nursia.  She was a monastic in her own right, and was abbess of a women's community at Plombariola, about 5 miles from Monte Cassino.  All that we know of her is contained in the Dialogues of Pope Gregory the Great.  This is, of course, a hagiography and not an "objective" work of history.  Be that as it may, the following excerpt illustrates how love can trump monastic rules and even the laws of nature.  It is found in chapters 33 and 34 of the Dialogues.

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His sister, named Scholastica, was dedicated from her infancy to our Lord.  Once a year she came to visit her brother.  The man of God went to her not far from the gate of his monastery, at a place that belonged to the Abbey.  It was there he would entertain her.  Once upon a time she came to visit according to her custom, and her venerable brother with his monks went there to meet her.

They spent the whole day in the praise of God and spiritual talk, and when it was almost night, they dined together.  As they were yet sitting at the table, talking of devout matters, it began to get dark.  The holy nun, his sister, entreated him to stay there all night that they might spend it in discoursing of the joys of heaven.  By no persuasion, however, would he agree to that, saying that he might not by any means stay all night outside of his Abbey.

At that time, the sky was so clear that no cloud was to be seen.  The nun, hearing this denial of her brother, joined her hands together, laid them on the table, bowed her head on her hands, and prayed to almighty God.

Lifting her head from the table, there fell suddenly such a tempest of lightening and thundering, and such abundance of rain, that neither venerable Benedict, nor his monks that were with him, could put their heads out of doors...

The man of God, seeing that he could not...return to his abbey, began to complain to his sister, saying:  "God forgive you, what have you done?"  She answered him, "I desired you to stay, and you would not hear me; I have desired it of our good Lord, and he has granted my petition.  Therefore if you can now depart, in God's name return to your monastery, and leave me here alone."

But the good father, not being able to leave, tarried there against his will where before he would not have stayed willingly.  By that means, they watched all night and with spiritual and heavenly talk mutually comforted one another...

...The next day the venerable woman returned to her monastery and the man of God to his abbey.  Three days later, standing in his cell, and lifting up his eyes to heaven, he beheld the soul of his sister (which was departed from her body) ascend into heaven in the likeness of a dove. 

The Presentation in the Temple  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Today's feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple--widely known as Candlemas in the Western Church--has as its overriding image the manifestation of the light of Jesus and our reception of it. This is well expressed in a sermon of Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem (560-638).  It can be found in PG 87, 3, 3291-3293.

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In honor of the divine mystery that we celebrate today, let us all hasten to meet Christ.  Everyone should be eager to join the procession and to carry a light.

Our lighted candles are a sign of the divine splendor of the one who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of his eternal light.  Our candles also show how bright our souls should be when we go to meet Christ. 

The Mother of God, the most pure Virgin, carried the true light in her arms and brought him to those who lay in darkness.  We too should carry a light for all to see and reflect the radiance of the true light as we hasten to meet him.

The light has come and has shone upon a world enveloped in shadows; the Dayspring from on high has visited us and given light to those who lived in darkness.  This, then, is our feast, and we join in procession with lighted candles to reveal the light that has shone upon us and the glory that is yet to come to us through him...

The true light has come, the light that enlightens every man who is born into this world.  Let all of us, my brethren, be enlightened and made radiant by this light.  Let all of us share in its splendor, and be so  filled with it that no one remains in the darkness.  Let us be shining ourselves as we go together to meet and to receive with the aged Simeon the light whose brilliance is eternal...

...By faith we too embraced Christ, the salvation of God the Father, as he came to us from Bethlehem.  Gentiles before, we have now become the people of God.  Our eyes have seen God incarnate, and because we have seen him present among us and have mentally received him into our arms, we are called the new Israel.  Never shall we forget this presence; every year we keep a feast in its honor.

How High Are Anglo-Catholics?  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Anglo-Catholics get a bad rap--sometimes justified, of course--as liturgical fussbudgets, concerned only with liturgical minutiae and with replicating the way things were done in the Roman Catholic Church prior to Vatican II.   A more sensible and accurate view of Anglo-Catholicism is found in What is Anglo-Catholicism by Rev John D Alexander, SSC.  The final part of the essay lists nine ways that Anglo-Catholics are "high", all of them much more substantial than lace surplices. A hat-tip to Rev Canon Robert Hendrickson.

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1.  A High View of God.  Anglo-Catholic worship at its best cultivates a sense of reverence, awe, and mystery in the presence of the Holy One...

2.  A High View of Creation... The Anglo-Catholic view of the world is highly sacramental; in worship we gather up the best of creation--as reflected in art, craftsmanship, music, song, flowers, incense, etc--and offer it all back up to God.

3.  A High View of the Incarnation...God became man in order to transform human existence through participation in his divine life.

4.  A High View of the Atonement...The image of Jesus on the cross reminds us of the depth and horror of human sin, and of the price that God has paid for our redemption...Many Anglo-Catholics find the sacrament of Penance an indispensable aid in this process. 

5.  A High View of the Church...We regard the universal church neither as an institution of merely human origin, nor as a voluntary association of individual believers, but as a wonderful mystery...

6.  A High View of the Communion of Saints....We have fellowship with all who live in Christ.  Anglo-Catholicism thus affirms the legitimacy of praying for the dead, and of asking the saints in heaven for their prayers.

7.  A High View of the Sacraments...Holy Baptism establishes our identity once for all as children of God and heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven...And in the Holy Eucharist, Christ becomes objectively present in the Blessed Sacrament of his Body and Blood...

8.  A High View of Holy Orders...Anglo-Catholicism has borne witness that the threefold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons in apostolic succession is God-given...

9.  A High View of Anglicanism.  We affirm that the Anglican Churches are truly part of Christ's Holy Catholic Church...Since the days of the Oxford Movement, our standard has been the faith and practice of the ancient, undivided Church...