Sunday, July 28, 2019

Prayers and Bargains

For Year C Proper 12, using the Genesis 18 reading

We pick up from last Sunday's reading in Genesis, with Abraham speaking to the men, the presence of the Lord, as they prepare to go to Sodom and Gomorrah. And Abraham is concerned, because Sodom is where his nephew Lot is living. And thus we have one of the most peculiar prayers in scripture: negotiations for the fate of those cities, negotiations which seemingly are completely successful and yet which are in the end utterly futile. For the men arrive at Sodom, where Lot takes them into his house, where the men of Sodom try and fail to break in for the express purpose of raping the divine guests. Lot and his family are made to flee, and the two cities are made the, um, fire and brimstone standard of the Lord's wrath, becoming watchwords through scripture both of wanton and willful immorality, and of divine retribution.

Abraham's deal-making with God is not listed among the seven types of prayer which our church commends to us. We are most familiar with petition (that is, asking God to do things for us) and intercession (asking him to do things for others), and I suppose that Abraham's bargaining could be classified as some form of the latter. We participate in other prayers on a Sunday, even if we do not name them as such: adoration (that is, worship), praise, thanksgiving, oblation (which is to say, making offerings), and penitence are all elements found in our liturgy, and they too are all ways of praying. But as a rule, the church does not encourage attempting to cut deals with the Lord God, and in reading on the subject, one is inclined to agree that it is unwise.

As to how we should pray: first, Jesus gives us the example of the Lord's Prayer, as related in Luke rather than the more familiar version from Matthew. But it is set in a different context in this gospel, for in Matthew it is delivered as part of the Sermon on the Mount, in the center of a longer passage on praying in general. Luke, however, relates it very briefly, and then follows it with a parable on the efficacy of praying. The Father, he says, will hear us and give us what is good, an egg, not a scorpion, and not because we merit it. Indeed, Jesus say, if a man will give another what he asks for simply to get rid of his persistent begging, how more so will the Father grant us out of love.

It is a statement to justify faith, a statement of hope. But it is also one of the hardest statements of the gospel, because so often it seems that nothing is forthcoming, not even no. Now in Matthew we are told not to make a public spectacle of our praying, and several other commands besides, but even those are not enough to account for the many times we sit on our beds, and beg and plead with God, and receive a silence that is not even stony, but only empty. Over the years many have tried to explain this, to provide reassurance, and even to deny that it represents any scandal. I will do no such thing, but only return to the oaks at Mamre.

Abraham's prayer is answered, oh, yes, more immediately and personally than any of us have a right to expect. And the Lord God does not go back on his word. And yet, the men arrive at Sodom, and are accosted, and they all but drag Lot and his family out of the city. The divine wrath rains down, and Sodom is no more. For all the fashionable universalism of our day, the warning is always there, that we must show our faith through our works to be truly faithful, as James writes; else, there is the fate of Sodom, and of the tares harvested with the wheat.

But one last look at the parable. A man goes to his neighbor, and his neighbor grants his prayer. And is it not so with us? God's purpose is not carried out only in miracles; we ourselves are his hands (as St. Teresa wrote), and we are the answers to the prayers of others. If the poor are to get their daily bread, then it is we who are well-endowed who must provide it; they must not be forced to rely on manna from heaven. It is we who can comfort, and can heal, and nourish. It is we who can refrain from wrath, and contempt, and treachery. It is our sin that is the cause of many of the world's ills—indeed, from the teaching of Genesis 3, we are responsible for all of it. But as we repent and refrain from sinning, we are also advancing the kingdom, so that “your will be done” can be realized in our daily lives.

We are not always answered as we please; we do not always hear the answer. And yet we are reassured, there is an answer, if we would but talk to God, the God who knows our needs before we ask, and what in our blindness we cannot ask. Therefore, I ask of you, pray without ceasing, to the Father who sees all, and hears all, and loves all through his Son, Jesus Christ, in the power of the Spirit. AMEN.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Antique and Holy Advice

Beloved in the Lord: Our Savior Christ, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood as a sign and pledge of his love, for the continual remembrance of the sacrifice of his death, and for a spiritual sharing in his risen life. For in these holy Mysteries we are made one with Christ, and Christ with us; we are made one body in him, and members one of another.

Having in mind, therefore, his great love for us, and in obedience to his command, his Church renders to Almighty God our heavenly Father never-ending thanks for the creation of the world, for his continual providence over us, for his love for all mankind, and for the redemption of the world by our Savior Christ, who took upon himself our flesh, and humbled himself even to death on the cross, that he might make us the children of God by the power of the Holy Spirit, and exalt us to everlasting life. But if we are to share rightly in the celebration of those holy Mysteries, and be nourished by that spiritual Food, we must remember the dignity of that holy Sacrament. I therefore call upon you to consider how Saint Paul exhorts all persons to prepare themselves carefully before eating of that Bread and drinking of that Cup.

For, as the benefit is great, if with penitent hearts and living faith we receive the holy Sacrament, so is the danger great, if we receive it improperly, not recognizing the Lord’s Body. Judge yourselves, therefore, lest you be judged by the Lord. Examine your lives and conduct by the rule of God’s commandments, that you may perceive wherein you have offended in what you have done or left undone, whether in thought, word, or deed. And acknowledge your sins before Almighty God, with full purpose of amendment of life, being ready to make restitution for all injuries and wrongs done by you to others; and also being ready to forgive those who have offended you, in order that you yourselves may be forgiven. And then, being reconciled with one another, come to the banquet of that most heavenly Food.

And if, in your preparation, you need help and counsel, then go and open your grief to a discreet and understanding priest, and confess your sins, that you may receive the benefit of absolution, and spiritual counsel and advice; to the removal of scruple and doubt, the assurance of pardon, and the strengthening of your faith.

To Christ our Lord who loves us, and washed us in his own blood, and made us a kingdom of priests to serve his God and Father, to him be glory in the Church evermore. Through him let us offer continually the sacrifice of praise, which is our bounden duty and service, and, with faith in him, come boldly before the throne of grace.

The words I have just read to you come from your prayer book. They replace a set of three such exhortations from the previous book, the first of which was to be read on the first Sunday of Advent and of Lent, and on Trinity Sunday, and the other two to be read the Sunday prior to when communion was to be offered. In those days, before the eucharist was designated as “the principal act of Christian Worship on the Lord's Day and other major Feasts,” it was common that communion occurred perhaps monthly; but then, in Roman Catholic churches from medieval times until relatively recently, people commonly received only once or twice a year, though the mass was said every week.

In the middle ages, the people's part was to see the offering made, a theology rejected by the reformers; yet infrequent communion remained a feature of Protestant worship until the liturgical movements of the last century. I remember as a Presbyterian child attending communion only four times a year. But the reexamination of our rites which led up to the adoption of our current prayer book has overturned all that, so that weekly communion is the rule in most of our parishes. And thus, the typical Episcopalian, accustomed to a routine of Eucharists, week after week, likely finds this exhortation obscure, and its advice perhaps antique. Week after week, we come to church expecting to sing some hymns, hear some scripture and a sermon (hopefully brief), say the creed and some prayers, and then approach the altar for a fragment of bread and a sip of wine, with nary a qualm about the whole routine.

But perhaps we should be having qualms. The habit of weekly communion: this is commendable, as is any practice which cultivates prayer as part of life's pattern. But habit can become mechanical, and the weekly miracle can fall into the other kind of routine: ordinary, mechanical, lifeless. Paul writes that we who partake need to discern the body, or call down judgement upon ourselves. And surely Paul does not mean a literal vision here, for who among us can see divinity—or at that, who could withstand the vision? But equally surely, he must mean that our participation in the rite needs to go beyond simple consumption, and ought, within the bounds of your faculties, to be founded in an awareness of what it is that we do, with all the reverence and worship that this implies.

For consider this: for a moment, you will hold something of Jesus in your hand, and sip something of him from the cup. Christians over the years have argued exactly how this is so, and we Anglicans have refused to commit to a single theory of how this is so, which to my mind is a prudent reflection of the limits of theology as a product of human thought. I would venture to say that taking these theories too seriously may be condemned as fostering the factions and divisions which Paul condemned. But as a church we Anglicans have always held to the faith that Jesus is Really present: however spiritual, however material, however mystical, we do not hold communion to be only symbolic. Jesus is there, on the plate and in the cup, and Jesus is therefore in us, and we are united with him again as we are united in the church, which is also his body.

But even as these are truths, they are also images which can be made the objects of various sorts of idolatry. We can for example come to think of the altar rail as a sort of divine filling station in which we get our heavenly tanks topped off every week. And this much is true: we do need God every week, for we need God every minute of every day. But even to the degree that the Jesus is in the substance of communion, even to the degree that it feeds us, the analogy between His food and our daily bread tends to reduce the former to the latter, an ordinary transaction which we are wont to take for granted—especially the majority of us, whom I would wager never seriously want for nutrition.

Likewise, there is the risk of taking communion as a sort of religious insurance policy, so that we may go about the rest of our week indifferent to the gospel demands, secure (we think) in the armor with which our rites surround our souls. We sin, not in order that grace may abound, but simply because our routine includes a great deal of routine sinning, which we cannot be bothered to notice and or rein in. We know that we are good people, because we go to church and take Jesus into us each Sunday. Well, as you may recall, Jesus commended the Pharisees—barely—for their scrupulous observances; it was what went on in between that he condemned. We have improved upon this slightly, for we at least know that we hold the right moral and political and economic positions (as God appears to have taught us through the mouths of our secular leaders). But really, when examined seriously, our lives show contempt and hard-heartedness and lust and greed and every other sin on a daily basis. Yet we may be saved, but for the repentance which is not part of this routine.

It is this repentance which leads to a confession of sin have been made a part of the eucharistic liturgy. And the church, in her wisdom, has appointed that her priests may offer the grace of pardon not only corporately, but one-to-one. Indeed, in the larger church catholic, it has been the norm to insist that this be done in preparation for partaking. Anglicans have not made such a rule, but the rite has been commended, both in cases where a rite of personal contrition has seemed called for (as the exhortation suggests), and as a regular practice, seeing as how we sin as regularly. But at least we should approach the rail knowing and admitting our own failings, and also confident in the grace which washes sin away and makes us fit to stand before our God.

Therefore, I say this: if the words I read at the beginning sound antique, the instruction they give is ever current. We travellers through this modern century have not passed beyond their advice, but instead should heed these words all the more, in a world which teaches that God is neither there nor anywhere else, nor is sin of consequence nor of any reality at all. Tonight, and at each eucharist, I bid you take some time to pray before and after you approach the altar, and consider the implications of how you are fed with the substance of divine love, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Monday, March 04, 2019

Episcopate Trends, Continued

Back in the fall I commented on the latest thing in episcopal elections: all-women slates. And now we have an election in the Diocese of Michigan (meaning Detroit and its surroundings), and there are four candidates, and all of them are women. And there is a superficial diversity: there's no Hispanic, but one is black and one lesbian, and one is from way out of the area. But all either come from large parishes or serve on diocesan staff, and apparently someone has been looking at the charts from Research & Statistics, because in all but one case the parishes they served show a period of growth under their leadership.

And on that level, I cannot criticize the slate much: Rev. Perry, in particular, stands out as someone who oversaw the virtual resurrection of a near-dead parish. The questions asked tended towards putting parish growth as a priority, and given the diocese's 25% decline in attendance over the decade, it's a pressing issue, as in most of the church. As for theology: well, they were not asked the jaw-dropping question that was asked in Newark last year, and to ask "Much has been written about the changing paradigms in 21st century Christianity. How are you thinking and working to engage these changes? How will this inform your ministry as bishop?" is to invite a heterodox response. That said, none of them rises to the bait; indeed, there is next to nothing of systematic theology in their responses. One wonders how any of them would deal with St. John's Detroit, which is so retrograde as to be a 1928 parish, using the old hymnal no less. But perhaps in this era the pressure to dismay the orthodox has retreated in the face of the numbers.

And yet: in domestic dioceses, the only two of the last eight elections to include male candidates were those in Maine and San Diego, and in the latter, it was clear from the beginning that Susan Snook was the preferred candidate (considering that it took petitions to get anyone else on the slate). In the former, the gay candidate was elected; the other man was the only straight male in the entire lot. Without denigrating the qualifications of any of these people (there being only one or two of whom I knew anything aforehand) there's obviously something in the Episcopal water that's prompting a rather curious set of slates.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Philosophy Is Not Dead, and We Have Not Killed Her

Perhaps the most galling feature of the resurgence of "scientific" materialists is how truly terrible the science itself is. Take this passage from an interview with neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky:
A muscle did something. Meaning a neuron in your motor cortex commanded your muscle to do that. That neuron fired only because it got inputs from umpteen other neurons milliseconds before. And those neurons only fired because they got inputs milliseconds before and back and back and back. Show me one neuron anywhere in this pathway that, from out of nowhere, decided to say something that activated in ways that are not explained by the laws of the physical universe, and ions, and channels, and all that sort of stuff. Show me one neuron that has some cellular semblance of free will. And there is no such neuron.
Not to put too fine a point of it, but the reductionism here simply doesn't reflect the state of the field, even ignoring that question-begging word "decide". But it doesn't hurt to start there: on some level, "decide" is exactly what each neuron does. His description of a game-of-Moustrap-like chain from stimulus to response is, as a rule, the exception: the typical neuron in the brain is taking in a complex of inputs to which it responds in a manner over which there is a great deal of argument, including models that are frankly probabilistic, beyond the feedback which is part of so many neural circuits. Likewise, the implicit reduction of a thought to a single neuron firing is laughably simplistic, even without considering that we don't have any substantial idea of how anything beyond a fairly limited set of sensory impressions are realized in the brain, and certainly nothing as abstracted as a rational thought, or even an emotion.

The truth is that even the computers to whom analogy is often made are beginning to exceed our comprehension as their complexity grows. When the top go-playing program is set against itself, for example, the result is play that has been described by experts as "Amazing. Strange. Alien." Some of this appears to rise from limits of human ability to process the board as a whole, but other peculiarities of its play in these matches have resisted analysis. And the game of go, it should be remembered, had up to this time resisted computational attack by sheer combinatorial depth, not because of any complexity of its rules. The brain is hardly so symmetrical.

It is not unreasonable to hold this doctrine (for that is what is) subject to the demands of scientific proof. I do not accept that one can argue free will out of existence in this way: that the brain is mechanically deterministic is a hypothesis which needs explicit experimental proof, which we certainly do not have and which is certainly not going to be produced without a huge advance along several fronts of neurology and cellular biology. But beyond that, anyone is welcome to ask of these dogmatic skeptics, "what exactly do you mean by the will, anyway?" And at that point, we plunge headlong into the discomforting domain of the philosophers.

And it certainly discomforts them, at least if statements from the likes of the popularizers are any sign. If Stephen Hawking claimed that philosophy has become irrelevant because its practitioners haven't kept up with scientific developments (which he did), if Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson can, between the two of them, ridicule philosophers as concerned with irrelevancies, it is a sign of how insular and self-inflated the voices of secular materialism have become. Or rather, it points, philosophically, to the intellectual impoverishment of their own, well, philosophy. To turn to Philosophia's spurned sister, the theologians have not in fact been particularly discomforted by scientific advance; it is self-doubt that has proven their greatest threat. If we are reduced to a "god of the gaps", well, that's an aesthetic objection, to which reality need not conform.

And if humans created philosophy, as Nye claims, well, natural science is of the same ilk. He is hardly a model of intellectual rigor, and one would really consider the guardianship of that rigor to belong to philosophy; but even by standards about which there is no real controversy, these statements don't withstand even casual scrutiny. They have the same quality of rationalization about them that they attribute to others.