Theology Lite?  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Fr Greg Jones of the Anglican Centrist wrote this post almost a year ago which only recently came to my attention. It concerns the religious scholars Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Elaine Pagels, plus the retired bishop of Newark John Shelby Spong. These folks collectively could be considered The Four Horsemen (Horsepersons?) of Jesus Seminar pop theology. Their overall agenda, IMHO, is to accommodate Christianity to liberal secularism by watering down the former without trying to engage in an authentic dialog with the latter. They either deny traditional Christian beliefs outright or render them less offensive to secularist sensibilities by reinterpreting them as rather toothless metaphors (this last being Borg's modus operandi). Anyway, read and reflect.

For various reasons I got the piece off another site, Creedal Christian, which is worth a gander or two in its own right.

The Green Patriarch  

Posted by Joe Rawls

His All Holiness Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch (to give him his full title) is the worldwide leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church. His nickname "the Green Patriarch" is well-earned due to his heavy involvement in ecological issues. On November 8, 1997 he visited St Barbara's Greek Orthodox church in Santa Barbara, where he overtly declared environmental destruction to be a sin. On this Earth Day, I think it's appropriate to share some excerpts of his address with you.

We believe that Orthodox liturgy and life hold tangible answers to the ultimate questions concerning salvation from corruptibility and death. The Eucharist is at the very center of our worship. And our sin towards the world, or the spiritual root of our pollution, lies in our refusal to view life and the world as a sacrament of thanksgiving, and as a gift of constant communion with God on a global scale.

We envision a new awareness that is not mere philosophical posturing, but a tangible experience of a mystical nature...Human beings and the environment form a seamless garment of existence; a complex fabric that we believe is fashioned by God.

...The entire universe participates in a celebration of life, which St Maximos the Confessor described as a "cosmic liturgy". ...In the bread and the wine of the eucharist, as priests standing before the altar of the world, we offer the creation back to the Creator in relationship to Him, and to each other. Indeed, in our liturgical life, we realize by anticipation the final state of the cosmos in the Kingdom of Heaven. We celebrate the beauty of creation and consecrate the life of the world, returning it to God with thanks. We share the world in joy as a living mystical communion with the Divine...

Moreover, there is also an ascetic element in our responsibility towards God's creation. This asceticism requires from us voluntary restraint, in order for us to live in harmony with our environment...

Asceticism is not a flight from society and the world, but a communal attitude of mind and way of life that leads to the respectful use, and not the abuse, of material goods. Excessive consumption may be understood to issue from a world-view of estrangement from self, from land, from life, and from God. Consuming the fruits of the earth unrestrained, we become consumed ourselves, by avarice and greed. Excessive consumption leaves us emptied, out of touch with our deepest self. Asceticism is a corrective practice, a vision of repentance...

We are of the deeply held belief that many human beings have come to behave as materialistic tyrants. Those that tyrannize the earth are themselves, sadly, tyrannized...

It follows that, to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin. For humans to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God's creation; for humans to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate; by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for humans to injure other humans with disease; for humans to contaminate the earth's waters, its land, its air, and its life with poisonous substances--these are sins.

in prayer, we ask for the forgiveness of sins committed both willingly and unwillingly. And it is certainly God's forgiveness which we must ask for causing harm to His own creation.

Benedictine Roots  

Posted by Joe Rawls

I recently came across a most interesting article by Robert Hale called "The Benedictine Spirit in Anglicanism". Dom Robert is a Roman Catholic Camaldolese Benedictine monk and a member of the monastery of New Camaldoli, located near Big Sur, California. The Camaldolese tradition is distinctive in Western monasticism in that it allows its monks to alternate between life in a regular monastic community and life as a hermit. Both of these paths can be pursued within the same monastic enclosure. The Camaldolese have a formal ecumenical relationship with the Anglican Order of the Holy Cross, of which I am an Associate.

Dom Robert started out as an Episcopalian but discerned a vocation to the Camaldolese way while still an undergraduate at Pomona College. He is therefore well-qualified to speak authoritatively about Anglican-Roman Catholic relations, and his article is a valuable resource for anyone curious about Anglican origins. I find it so useful that I've added it to the "Favorite Links" section of the sidebar. At the very end of the piece is a link to the New Camaldoli website which is worth a look. I was able to stay briefly at the monastery a number of years ago and can recommend it to anyone seriously interested in Benedictine spirituality.

Papal Fashion Statements  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Michael McGough has a very interesting article in the April 6 Los Angeles Times about Pope Benedict's sense of style. No, not the Prada shoes. We're talking about his recent choices in liturgical vestments. On a number of occasions during Lent and Holy Week His Holiness has presided while attired in chasubles, copes, and other vesture of a style popular between the Counter-Reformation and Vatican II. His revival of these garments has provoked great joy in the hearts of Catholic traditionalists and equally great dread in the already-gloomy souls of post-Vatican II progressives.

Why? It's because liturgical vestments don't just visually differentiate the various actors in the drama of worship; they are also encoded statements of particular theologies. This is true regardless of what church we're talking about. The evangelical megachurch pastor in his Hawaiian shirt; the low-church Anglican in surplice and stole; Pope Benedict XVI in a baroque fiddleback chasuble; all are conveying visually what they think is the purpose of worship, and. indeed, Christianity itself.

There are two major types of chasuble, the large colored overgarment worn by the priest celebrating Mass. The gothic style (seen in the first picture of the Pope) is the older and in fact originates in the early patristic period, when it evolved out of what was essentially a poncho. It tends to be cut very fully.

The Roman style (colloquially known as the fiddleback) seems to have first appeared in the late 15th century and can be though of as a gothic chasuble pared away to what is basically a sandwich-board. Fiddlebacks (seen in the second photo of Benedict) can be very simple, but are somewhat notorious for being made of rich brocade or ornamented with very elaborate embroidery. They are frequently worn with lace albs.

Fiddlebacks passed out of style during the years following Vatican II, when the liturgical language went from Latin to the vernacular, popular music replaced Gregorian chant, and the priest faced the people instead of towards the east with his back to the congregation. Gothic chasubles got even larger than they had been--unless chasubles were eliminated altogether, which happened in more than a few places.

For reasons I don't fully understand, the fiddleback became associated with theological conservatives who accepted Vatican II begrudgingly, or else objected to what they thought were abuses perpetrated in its name. It became one of the party badges of traditionalists who hankered for a return to the Latin Mass and uncompromising ecclesiastical authority.

So when Cardinal Ratzinger--affectionately known to his opponents as "God's Rottweiler" or "Der Panzercardinal"--became Pope Benedict XVI, progressives feared the worst. So far, little liberal blood has actually been spilled, but the Pope has signaled a return to traditional liturgics. Most significantly, he issued a motu proprio--a kind of executive order--last summer making it much easier for local parishes to offer Latin Masses for interested congregants. The Pope seems to want to restore the Tridentine Mass to a place of honor alongside the vernacular liturgy, rather than abrogating the latter.

If clothes make the man, then perhaps in this case vestimentum papam facit.

Two Sides of the Same Coin  

Posted by Joe Rawls

"Emergent Christianity" is a movement that originated among evangelicals during the '90's. This is not the place for a detailed description of what "emergent' is, but in very broad terms it is characterized by postmodern philosophical orientations, egalitarian ecclesiastical organization, a preference for storytelling rather than asserting dogma, and a "generous orthodoxy"--you can believe in the Trinity and still hang out with gays and Jews, which is not exactly a big priority over at Focus on the Family. Also, there is a strong interest in recovering some traditional aspects of Christian spirituality, such as meditation and even (gasp!) icons.

Tony Jones (pictured) is a leader in the emergent movement and has written The New Christians: dispatches from the emergent frontier (Jossey-Bass 2008) which is, I suspect, the best introduction to the subject currently in print. He talks a lot about worldviews, sets of (frequently unacknowledged) a priori assumptions about how the world works, and how Christians all along the theological spectrum get hung up on notions of "truth" that are actually more indebted to enlightenment rationalism than to the Tradition. The following excerpt appears on pp. 154-155.

Liberal brothers and sisters care about truth too, though they sometimes seem squeamish about the truth of the biblical narrative. I had the pleasure of hearing the biblical scholar Marcus Borg speak recently, and in the question-and-answer session after his address, he was asked a question he's surely been asked hundreds of times: "Professor Borg, what about the empty tomb on Easter morning?" After a bit of theological hemming and hawing, Borg responded, "If I were a betting man, I'd bet--my life or one dollar--that the tomb was not empty. Or that there was no tomb."

Why would the resurrection seem unbelievable to Borg? It's because he is beholden to a certain framework for historical truth: if it violates physical laws, it's probably not "true" (at least not in a factual, historical sense; he still considers it "true" in a literary, metaphorical, even spiritual sense.) He is unwilling to entertain two mutually contradictory ideas simultaneously: (1) that the physical laws by which the universe operates hold unremittingly and (2) that events that break those laws--such as resurrection, miraculous healings, and transfigurations--really did happen. In his talk, Borg referred to those who hold the latter as "fideists," people who allow faith to trump reason.

But Borg has fallen into the other gutter of the bowling alley, allowing reason to trump faith--his, we might say, is a "faith in reason." But the problem with reason is that what we human beings have considered "reasonable' (a geocentric universe, slavery, healing with leeches) has often been overturned.

John Piper, who stands on the opposite end of the theological spectrum, is beholden to a similarly modern framework. After the Interstate 35 bridge collapse in August 2007, Piper wrote about the tragedy, which happened just a mile from his church in Minneapolis. "The meaning of the collapse of this bridge," he wrote, "is that John Piper is a sinner and should repent or forfeit his life forever." He went on to explain that God (seemingly not beams and girders) holds up every bridge in the world, and if one ever falls, God has a perfect reason for it.

What's ironic is that both Borg and Piper want an airtight understanding of God, a God that makes perfect sense. For Borg, it's a God who does not defy the physical laws of the universe. For Piper, it's a God whose sovereignty requires his personal responsibility for all calamities. Each man is constricting God by forcing God to play by certain rules: the rules of physics or the rules of sovereignty. And each is attempting to squeeze all the paradox out of God.

But emergents don't fear paradox; they embrace it. God can be the creator of the universe and the breaker of the rules of physics. God can be sovereign yet not the author of evil.

So, again, the emergents are left to chart a middle course, one between the fideism (in human reason) of the left and the fideism (in the supernatural) of the right. As is so often the case, the "truth" lies in between, in a person (Jesus the Christ) who was truly human and truly divine--in faith, not fideism.