Monday, August 29, 2016

Life After Modern Death

After my recent sermon on faith it is only proper to turn to the matter of George Clifford's two part "things no modern man can believe" attack upon supposedly traditional ideas of life after death. Stewart Clem's response over at the Covenant website covers most of the bases, but I have a few points of my own to add.

Clem's first two points I would like to take up in a bit more depth. He quotes this passage from Clifford:

[H]istoric Christian understandings of what happens when a person dies, views that usually presume an empty tomb and Jesus’ bodily resurrection, are increasingly anachronistic in view of advances in astronomy, particle physics, and biology.
and a little further on, Clifford supplies a specific finding:
Astronomers, after losing their initial clashes with Christianity, have triumphed over Christian efforts to cling to literal interpretations of the Bible’s three-tiered cosmology (heaven, earth, and hell). Heaven and hell, if they exist, are almost assuredly not actual physical places.
OK, let's start with some corrections. The whole three universe story thing is a pretty modern interpretation: the earliest usage I could quickly find was by Minot Judson Savage, a Unitarian active in the later 1800s. I'm not going to get into the argument as to whether this is the picture of Genesis, but it is manifestly not the medieval Ptolemaic model, Dante notwithstanding; nor, when pressed, would they have agreed that heaven and hell were physical in the modern sense. Likewise, the more or less singular incident of Galileo has been mythologized into a permanent church versus science conflict which is also a product of 19th century rationalism. Fundamentalism, for all its flaws, is a reaction to this secular encroachment into the religious topics, not an ancient mode of thought. And this isn't just Clifford's fault. Neil deGrasse Tyson stated in the new Cosmos that Michael Faraday was raised in a "fundamentalist" faith, but the truth is that The Fundamentals would not be published until half a century after his death. Faraday and F. C. Baur, the father of the "T├╝bingen School", are almost exact contemporaries, but higher criticism really didn't hit English religion until a few years before Faraday's death.

The secularist narrative of its triumph over the Dark Ages (meaning not the period between the fall of Rome and high Middle Ages, but rather anything before the self-styled Enlightenment) is heavily invested in these anachronisms, but what ought to be increasingly anachronistic is this recourse to these highly unhistorical claims about how the ancients and medievals thought about natural science, the spiritual, and the nature of miracles. And it isn't as though nobody ever thought about these questions. Clifford says at one point:

First, what is the nexus between the spiritual and the physical? That is, how does the immaterial spiritual interface with the material, physical world? No explanation of that interface has gained widespread traction among scientists and theologians. In the absence of such an interface, how can humans, whose senses and cognitive processes are all physical, think, speak, or otherwise describe, much less interact with, the spiritual?
Now, surely any sophomore philosophy student can pick this apart. It's ridiculous to insist on a phenomenology in which the only things that happen are those for which there is some prior explanation, whether or not it is believed. Indeed, Christianity has, as rule, denied that such an "interface" is knowable, never mind whether "interface" is even a good word for what happens. Even among unbelieving science fiction authors and computer scientists, the notion that human "cognitive processes" are "physical" loses traction, for the notions that those cognitive processes could be represented in computational hardware, or that neurons could be fed stimuli quite unlike those of our six senses, are old and unsurprising. Consciousness is potentially metaphysical even in its physicality; nobody knows for sure, and beyond the highly questionable Turing test, nobody has any idea how to be sure. In the presence of the unfathomable and investigation-defying supernatural, it is not at all hard to do without the "ghost in the machine" reductionist caricature and live with a "soul" whose nature is likewise unknowable.

And it isn't as though people haven't ever talked about these problems. The whole thing seems to be founded in ignoring centuries of theologians and philosophers, preferring instead to take materialist positions that have been answered over and over. Or to put it in other words, what we're seeing here is a severe loss of philosophical nerve. All too many, now, have begged the question by declaring God dead, but instead of pushing back, theologians have, more or less futilely, sought the approval of the secular academy by conceding the battlefield. To take for granted what modern man cannot believe is to take irreligion as an axiom, but as there are modern men who do not believe so, the "axiom" is not so axiomatic, and men who know religion should be questioning it, not taking it without question.

What we're seeing here, then, is an emotional rather than a genuinely intellectual response. So what is going on here? That shall have to wait for the next post.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Ad Populum in a Pinch

I'm always interested in what Leander Harding has to say, and his observation about dealing with the ad orientum/ad populum issue in a turn-of-the-20th-century neogothic church was no exception. What struck me the most were these comments:
The nave is long, with a deep choir and a raised, high altar of marble against the (liturgical) east wall[....] Originally there was a rood screen in front of the choir, and the communion rail was at the foot of the altar steps.

The presentation of the Cross as tabernacle and temple in the Book of Hebrews provided a theological rationale for this architecture. Because of Christ’s sacrifice we may go boldly into the holy of holies, to the throne of grace, there to receive the body and blood of the Lord and be made one with him. The building’s original architecture allowed this dramatic movement to be enacted in the liturgy, by passing through the Cross into the inner sanctum for the administration of communion.

Around here, the typical outer suburban/town church is in a Victorian (or occasionally Federalist) building that is almost without exception a much shorter high-ceiling box, with a tiny chancel pulled out of the east end. There is typically very little room to pull the altar forward, but that doesn't mean people don't try, no matter how infelicitous the result. My current parish, in being expanded, went from this sort of compressed space to a truncated cross according to the current fashion, in which the sanctuary is a squarish platform for the acting out of the rite, with the altar at its center. Twenty years into using this arrangement, and problems which became evident early on are still manifest. The arrangement has never accommodated the lectern/pulpit/ambo comfortably, so that in the end it has migrated inside the rail and is moved out of the way before the offertory. We have been reduced to dependence on amplification, which ought not to be necessary, but the ambo cannot be placed in an acoustically satisfactory location.

There is,however, a deeper problem, a far more subtle lack which has only become apparent in watching a series of rectors cope with the space: it doesn't give any support to the liturgy. I have written before about how the 1979 liturgical rhythm moves so well with the tripartite neo-gothic space, and even in these small semi-rural parishes it works the same way. And this helps carry a priest through the rite, as long as they do not actively sabotage its solemnity. In our space, though, everything has to be carried by whoever is speaking or acting at the moment, because that person is on stage. The one thing that works well in spite of this is hymn singing, because there's nobody on then. And the thing is that I think at least communion could be improved by pushing the altar a foot closer to the retable and celebrating ad orientum, because then the celebrant wouldn't have to be on stage.

My high school chapel suffers the problems Harding outlined with his two altars, in spades. To cut them some slack, they were and are severely constrained by the need to fit more kids than the space was designed for into its utterly inflexible walls, but still, much of the mystery has been lost in its transformation into a liturgical stage. These little churches are scarcely less restrictive, as crowded as they inevitably are before the altar.

I have finally found a good picture of the interior of St. Clement's, Alexandria, so that you can see the kind of space that versus pop thinking was really aiming for. Here we see a very short and wide space, in which the only action occurring at the altar is communion itself (the pulpit and lectern are on the wall behind, as you can see). There is no audience, or rather, the celebrant is not performing to anyone there present; indeed, celebration is not versus populum at all, but rather in medio populi, which is a wholly better (and perhaps also more holy) symbol. But notice: the liturgical direction is turned back to the outside, toward the transcendent God.

It would be possible to transform a similarly shaped space into a similar plan, but it's a lot of work, and it needs room, which is (again) precisely what these little buildings do not have. And simply pushing the altar forward a couple of feet and putting the priest on the other side is not going to convert these Victorian spaces into the supposed patristic model; what you get instead is the turn-of-the-millennium auditorium church, writ small. I've given my reasons for preferring ad orientum in general, the chief of which is that I think in this era worship does need to be directed outward at a transcendent God; but I don't think you get the symbol of immanence by moving the altar two feet forward and conducting the rite from the other side.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Waiting in Faith

preached 7 August 2016, after weeks of doing Track 1 with its long run of OT prophet readings

This week we are taking a break from the denunciations of the prophets, but don't you worry: there will be more next week. But today, we take up the subject of faith.

So then: what is faith? Shortly we will all stand and say together the Creed, which in ancient times was called the “Symbol of Faith”, “symbol” in this case signifying a token: standing, in this case, for The Faith. And note carefully the words: we do not believe only of God, but in God. Yes, we do say that we believe God created the world, and that Jesus is His Son incarnate, and that he died and was resurrected. We believe that God is three in one, and that there is one church, and that Christ will sit in judgement in the last days. And in the large, we believe that Scripture tells us the story of salvation, which story we believe, and we believe that our priests and other ministers manifest God through word and sacrament. All these ideas and propositions we are called to believe, and I hope we do believe them; but believing these notions is not all there is to faith.

No, the Creed says that we believe in God, that He is not just something we know various things about (the chief being, of course, that He exists), but someone in whom we place our trust and reliance. Last week we heard Jesus tell a parable of a man of wealth, who put his faith in the storehouses of his ample goods. He trusted in what was perishable, and it failed him, but we who trust in God place our reliance upon what is imperishable: this we do believe.

But we believe; we do not see. The LORD first spoke to Abram in chapter 12 of Genesis, saying, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation.” Abram obeyed, and at the end of the next chapter the promise is repeated; and then two chapters on, we hear the promise repeated this morning, and by this time Abram is getting a bit concerned about this descendants thing, seeing as how he has none of yet. Another chapter passes, and Sarai, losing patience, gives her maid Hagar over to her husband so that he has at least some son. Two more chapters pass, and while the God of Hosts establishes his covenant with Abraham and visits him in the form of three men, still there is no heir. Sodom and Gomorrah are razed, Sarah has a run-in with Abimelech, and it is not until we get to Chapter 21 that Sarah finally is pregnant with Isaac—and in the very next chapter, God demands this only son as a sacrifice. Long the promise made to Abram went unfulfilled, and long was he tested, but he believed it, and scripture tells us, it was reckoned as righteousness.

And as we are told in the Letter to the Hebrews, Abraham “died in faith, not having received what was promised.” And likewise, we who are faithful await what is unseen: the final triumph of the kingdom of God. Almost two thousand years have passed since the day of glorious resurrection, and yet we wait. But in that waiting, we show our faith.

So how do we wait? First, we come together in worship, assembling as a people who watch and wait together, their whole unity made from that faith. Second, we read and repeat the ancient promises as they are told in scripture. Week after week we hear the story of salvation—not myths and fictions, but the account of the acts of God across time. Thus the gospel, the good news, is spoken in story, the story of Jesus' teaching and life and death and resurrection. Third, we respond in reaffirmation of our commitment to this faithfulness: singing, praying, hearing, and stating again the principal points of our belief. Fourth, we enter into communion through the Eucharist, which we carry out in faithfulness to Christ's command. And fifth, we go out into the world as witnesses to this faith, that others might become faithful, and that our own faithfulness be shown in acts of love.

So last week, this week, next week, the week after that, the year after that, over and over, we come together in faith. And if our faithfulness is not dulled, well, others are claimed by despair, by loss of hope, by sins of all kinds—pride, greed, lust, and the rest—sins which prey upon us as well. But for us, as for Abraham, our faith may be counted as righteousness. So be assured, that which we await will one day arrive. None but the Father knows whether this world will end tomorrow, or in our lifetime, but if we remain faithful, then we shall be ready for the glorious fulfillment of the promise of salvation given in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Saintly Slash

So this showed up in my Facebook feed today: Martha and Mary of Bethany: Sisters or lesbian couple?

Seriously??? I would like to hope this is just one of those random things that the internet spews forth under the principle of "bullhorns for everyone", but then, there's the Ruth/Naomi and David/Jonathan crowd, both of which made appearances in the same-sex blessing rite's lessons. For those of you who haven't run across it, there's this genre of "slash fiction", which originated in the 1960s-'70s SF fandom with heterosexual women writing stories of homosexual relationships between Kirk and Spock of Star Trek fame. This was abbreviated to "Kirk/Spock" and branched out to include other fictional characters paired in highly emotionalized relationships. I suppose it's a bit unfair of me to compare these extra-biblical matchups to fan fiction, but really, it's not that hard to figure out what's up with Ruth and Naomi (loyalty) or David and Jonathan (friendship/philia). Mary and Martha are more of a Bert and Ernie arrangement, but again, at least as they function in the gospel stories, it's right out there in the open.

But then queer studies or whatever got their, um, well, hands on these, and every two characters of the same sex have to be "shipped" (as they say) in what, to the, um, uninitiated, come across as prurient speculation. Or perhaps the point is to ├ępater les orthodoxes. But it's the twenty-first century, and it is impossible to say anything genuinely shocking anymore on the internet. Thus, I give this my measuredly Anglican assessment:

Give unto me a break.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Another Seminary Closes

The announcement has come today that Episcopal Divinity School will be shutting down at the end of the 2016-2017 academic year. The temptation for grave-dancing at the demise of the chief radical liberal seminary is strong, but instead, in this response from Rod Dreher one may read various entries from the course catalogue and marvel. They do have courses more obviously relevant to the parish priest, but you may peruse the about-to-be-irrelevant last year's catalogue yourself and see that the same kind of contrived liberal speak pervades the whole thing. It is quite a distance to the usual cool academic and administrative prose of Trinity School for Ministry's catalogue, and perhaps an infinite distance from the latter's Statement of Faith, which may be found on page six if one needs to be convinced of their dogged orthodoxy. I cannot imagine such a document having a place at EDS; instead we have this required course:
“Foundations” is Episcopal Divinity School’s way of introducing incoming master’s program students to the understandings and commitments underlying the school’s purpose statement “to form leaders of hope, courage, and vision” who “serve and advance God’s mission of justice, compassion, and reconciliation.” Students will consider vocation both as the call to personal transformation and to act as God’s agents of change and liberation in the world. Analysis will consider personal, interpersonal, institutional, and cultural power dynamics and will focus on race and racism as it informs our understanding of other forms of oppression. Through experiential learning, class presentations, and assignments, students will reflect on how their own social location shapes their actions and thinking while developing tools for theological reflection, social analysis, and engagement in the struggle for the renewal of the church and the world.
Does that mean something? I hardly know, but I do not see in it any much religion. It could just as well be required at Oberlin for all incoming freshpeople, er, first year students.

Likewise, in the comments to the ENS article we have this brave look to the future:

[The decision] is more than economic; the culture has changed and so has our Church. It is time for transforming our understanding of theological education to meet the challenges of today. EDS and its former institutions have always been leaders for social justice and the ethical issues we face in our society. The School must now transition into an innovative and imaginative place that affirms religious pluralism and serves the church and society with love and spiritual vitality for all people. The shape of our institutional future is filled with hope for new life.
Again I ask: does this mean anything? I realize that nobody has any idea what to do with the failing institution's assets, but still, does worshipping God have anything to do with it? What about preaching salvation? Can we at least say "Christ has Died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again!"?

Saturday, June 18, 2016

But Who Listens?

Tony Clavier commended the Word to the Church promulgated by the House of Bishops from their March meeting, but remarks on the likely futility of such pronouncements:
We tend to function as if we still had a ready hearing. But who listens? As we have shrunk, we have become the more partisan. The conservative party at prayer has become the progressive movement in church. Our General Convention adopts a huge number of resolutions on political and social matters unheard or read by the powers that be. Our largely right of center laity either bristles at or ignores these resolutions. Thus when our General Convention or in this case our House of Bishops has a non-partisan, objective “word” for our church and hopefully through Episcopalians to the nation, who listens, who hears? In large part we have squandered the utility of our national pulpit because we haven’t the discipline to give objective moral guidance to the church and nation, or we simply assume that our political opinions are gospel.

And this is but the tip of the iceberg of our irrelevance. As a few of you may be aware, there's this fellow named Donald Trump who will almost certainly become the Republican presidential candidate. I would describe him as a buffoon, a political incompetent, and a businessman whose wealth is made possible by the fact of starting out with so much, ameliorating his many failures and manifest mismanagement. He has no positive qualifications to speak of, and many negatives. And yet, he has consistently prevailed in the Republican primaries, to the dismay of a wide swath of commentators and analysts. Why are people voting for him?

Well, there is yet one more thing I see about him: he is a man who does not so much lie as he cares neither one way nor the other about truth. Over at the Atlantic they have begun to consider whether Trump's message is anything more than an outpouring of emotion signals to a people for whom rational consideration of issues is foreign. And in that is enmeshed Trump's blatant disregard for any sort of social norm. I shall reduce it to one single aspect of his business dealings: the art of the Trump deal, it appears, is to simply to refuse to pay up, and then through threat of legal action, to force his creditors to take cents on the dollar. It would have been a terrible temptation, preaching on last Sunday's lesson from First Kings, to begin by saying,

The widow Vera Coking had a house in Atlantic City, beside the property of Donald Trump. And Trump said to her, "Give me your house, so that I may have it for a parking garage, because it is near the hotel I am building; I will give you its value in money." But she said to Trump, "The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance."
And, well, at least Trump was not successful in getting her land. But in gauging his appeal, I have to consider that some large portion of his base shares his amorality. As a claimant to moral authority, we have no voice which they will heed. Indeed, we are held in contempt for stepping across the visceral taboos which are all that are left of their morality. Can we even preach salvation to them? Well, we are not interested, and the social justice we do preach has no traction, for they reject the bonds of community upon which such justice must depend.

But if even if we remember the command to convert the world, will it hear the call? That, increasingly, is the question we must confront. We can no longer be a church for seekers (and at this lesser task we fail, because we have so much trouble repeating the most basic words of our faith), because increasingly the people about us have either despaired or lack (they think) for nothing, and so they do not seek. This is our challenge.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Jesus' Marriage Annulled

Ariel Sabar has an article in the just-published Atlantic detailing his investigations into the provenance of the Jesus's Wife Fragment. His research points to one Walter Fritz, one-time business partner to Hans-Ulrich Laukamp (the supposed owner of the fragment) but more intriguingly, also former masters student at the Berlin Free University, studying Egyptology before abruptly disappearing from the program. Karen King (the Harvard scholar behind the revelations) responded with the admission that the investigation "tips the balance towards forgery."

So now that the affair is all but over, let us review the matter. Still the most telling comment on the whole affair was made at the beginning by Jim Davila: "[T]his fragment is exactly, exactly, what the Zeitgeist of 2012 would want us to find in an ancient gospel. To my mind that weighs heavily against its authenticity. [....] My working hypothesis at the moment is that someone who knew what they were doing went to a lot of effort using a piece of ancient papyrus to create a remarkable forgery." And he is quite justified in stating, in his response to the new story, "I called it correctly as soon as the existence of the papyrus was announced and I maintained that position throughout all the twists and turns of the story over the last three and a half years." With less knowledge of the field, I personally said that "[i]f I were a betting man, I could put my money on this coming to nothing."

So, here's the score: on the one side we have the mainstream media, who seem to largely be staffed by people who are ignorant about this stuff, don't want to learn, and have an antipathy toward anything orthodox. This particularly is manifested in their views towards sexuality, which tend to run towards "even if it does frighten the horses; especially if it does." Gnosticism, as they see it, is this Crowleian-Gardnerian-Learian thelemo-wicco-countercultural palimpsest, scraped clean of the original hatred of the material body in preparation for forgery of modern sexual (im)mores as ancient. Surely, if they had spent much time asking the many people who are familiar with the material and who don't participate in the academic Gnostic Sales Company, they would have found out that (a) from the beginning these others were extremely cautious if not outright doubting of this text, that (b) if it had been genuine, it almost certainly wouldn't have intended to say that Jesus had an actual in-the-flesh wife, and most of all (c) that it didn't matter to orthodox Christianity anyway. Sure, simple sensationalism goes far in explaining their credulity, but it's hard to imagine that, for example, the revelation of a ca-AD 90 text of John would get the same hype. Well, except maybe on Fox News.

But anyway, on the other side we have Dr. King, and with her, Harvard. Given the immediate and strong negative reaction from the field, there is no question but that she must be faulted for her credulity. And I'm afraid I have to say that I have to think that this was predicated on her membership in the Gnostic Sales Company. She was a Jesus Seminar member, which I consider a public relations effort for pushing the merits of the Gnostic material in understanding apostolic Christianity, and she has published other books pushing the Gospel of Thomas forward. And while I suppose there's a degree to which nobody can be faulted for putting their own ideas to the fore, Harvard certainly should have known better.

Perhaps the best thing about the affair, besides the vindication of the doubters, is that the religion writers who abetted the fraud are having their faces rubbed in the matter. Laurie Goldstein at the NYT, the chief cheerleader, was made to back down back when the parallel Qau codex forgery was uncovered; now the others are being presented with the same fate, not to mention being roundly scooped by a competitor precisely because they didn't bother to do some pretty basic homework. I can only hope that in the future the next big "discovery" will be treated more circumspectly.