Thursday, April 18, 2013

On Inviting Heretics to Speak in the Parish

It occurs to me that the there may be a really perverse mentality going on in the invitations to have heretics come speak at church. Most of these speakers fall into the "things no modern man can believe" class of somehow-still-faithful-to-something-or-other skeptics who have managed to come up with a reason for continuing to attend some religious ritual even though they reject the doctrinal content of what happens. OK, well, I've already been around why these people shouldn't be put in pulpits and made a feature of adult education: they undermine the message of the creed and make us look hypocritical and foolish. But there's a bit more to it than that.

I would conclude that someone like Spong or Crossan does in fact damage the faith of a lot of people, not just in getting them to invest in the heresies these modernists espouse, but also in convincing many to abandon the Christian religion entirely. The contradiction of trying to hold these anti-creedal tenets while reciting the creed each Sunday is too much for many, well, more rational people to maintain. So in that wise I do not think that their presentation under the aegis of church sponsorship is without negative consequence. And it's pretty clear that some people of firm trinitarian conviction decide to go elsewhere and cease expending their energy on a futile resistance to such heresy (since after all they have no hope of correcting the faults of the clerisy). So what do the people doing the inviting think of this? Well, if it is not obvious, then a couple of guesses may be hazarded. The first is that the inviting clerics are also heretics, but lack the nerve or privileged position to be up front about it. So they get other people who aren't risking anything to do their preaching for them.

A less plainly egregious rationale would involve a cleric whose own theological thinking is so muddled that he doesn't really understand how wrong these guys are, because he cannot or will not work through the implications. But I think perhaps a third principle is dominating this, and it is the manifestation of a lack of confidence in the faith of his actual and potential charges. Too much Tillich and his ilk has got our hypothetical rector part if not all the way to believing that modern people (by which he means intelligent, clear-thinking, reasonable people like himself, not the sort of riff-raff who go to Southern Baptist or fundangelical churches) cannot take the scriptural stories seriously. But he needs these people to keep the pledges coming, so he's will be be compromised in order not to scare them off. At the same time, though (and this cannot be said out loud) he's relying on the stalwarts to remain stalwart. In other words, he takes his orthodox parishioners for granted. Or to put it in other, more damning terms, he subconsciously thinks in terms of they being those who are and who remain faithful, dismissing the possibility that the speakers he brings in may be working to undermine that faith. At the same time he is subconsciously working on the premise that the potential unorthodox modernists among his flock are they whose "faith" must be coddled and nurtured. And beyond that, our putative rector essentially holds that genuine creedal orthodox faith and instruction is a threat to these waiverers, while he acts as if the converse were not true.

This would add up to a tacit admission that it is orthodox faith which is strong and lasting and which gives hope for the future. But that contradiction, I suspect, isn't going to be worked through.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Faith of Thomas

Today's gospel is one of the great lessons of the season, and one of the great readings about faith. Now there are two messages about the faith in this story: one about its content, and another about our relationship to it. One, the more familiar, concerns Thomas's faith; but the other is about what he believes, and it is that which I will address first. The text says “Jesus came and stood among them,” and it is clear from this and other passages that John surely does not mean that the disciples had nothing more than a vision of the risen Jesus. Luke and John are both very clear on this point: in one story he breaks bread; in another he eats fish. And a week after he rises, he invites Thomas to touch Him. It is clear that the risen body is, in some respects, transformed: Jesus comes and goes at will, and though his wounds are retained, they do not seem to impede his new life. But there is also no question as to whether He is truly, physically resurrected. Jesus lives for real; his body was not left to rot on the cross or thrown aside, as one revisionist has suggested. Nor are the resurrection accounts to be taken as mythological tales, as others suggest: that error belongs to gnosticism, a later heresy which tried to remake the orthodox message in the image of pagan mysteries. The risen Jesus is a living body, not an insubstantial spirit or mere metaphysical principle.

And upon confronting this Jesus, Thomas then makes a striking confession, for it is he who first names Jesus as Lord and God. Jesus names himself the Son of Man, and is confessed as the Son of God by Peter; but it is Thomas who first addresses him as God, thus fulfilling the first verses of the John's Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God; and the Word was God.” Here we are at the core of the faith which we shall ourselves confess in a short while: Jesus, the Word of God incarnate, fully God and fully Man, born of Mary, put to death, and resurrected— not as a metaphor, but as a literal, living union of humanity and the divine. It is the promise of this new life which we are reborn into through baptism— not some vague promise that we will be remembered, or that we will live on in others, but that at the last day we will be brought, living, into that eternal kingdom of which Jesus Christ is ruler.

Which brings us to the more familiar second aspect of the story. Thomas, as we have heard, refused to believe the testimony of the others, and demanded hard, physical proof, even as modern man holds is right and proper. Jesus offered him the proof he required, but then Jesus was carried back into Heaven, so that we, who might want to touch His wounds and grasp His feet, must be satisfied with the small taste of the holy Body and sacred Blood which we receive from the altar. Some among us may be touched by the Spirit in other ways, and thus be confirmed in faith, but many are they whose grace is to come here, week in and week out, and hear the preaching, sing the hymns, repeat the prayers, and otherwise worship without tactile or mental confirmation of the reality of their savior. Indeed, spiritual manuals warn that God is wont to withhold the signs of His presence, thus testing us; for as Paul says, “faith is the evidence of things unseen.” So we pray, and it seems that we are not heard; we come to church for spiritual sustenance, and we leave seemingly unfilled.

By faith we know this to be the illusion of the world, for Christ is with us always, even to the end of days. But the voice of the world is strong, appealing to our feeling that we deserve to be humored in the tests we set before God: not that we consciously set out to test Him, but that we take a prayer and hold Him to it as it were a contract for service and not a cry for deliverance. Some look at the sorry state of the world and refuse to allow that God could let it continue. Some look at his wretched church and deny that he would ever commission so hapless and fallen an organization to represent Him in this world. If Jesus still walked among us, if each man and woman who cared to do so could see Him for themselves and touch His risen flesh for themselves, surely faith would come easily to all. Yet Jesus was taken again from us, with only the apostles left behind to testify to the reality of His reappearance among the living.

We are thus dependent upon the church to recall for us what the apostles heard and saw. Jesus relies upon the body of which he is the head and of which we are the hands and feet. And we know it to be His will that it be thus. It is our voices, our repetition of the sacred texts, which must relate the fact of the resurrected Lord to each new generation. Many such generations have passed since Thomas saw the wounds, and believed, and yet the church, as it was charged to do, continues to carry the message through the ages, not only through her teaching, but through the sacraments which she is ordained to deliver to her people.

Therefore we who believe must count ourselves blessed, who cannot see, and yet still have faith, even as Jesus said. For we are thus the sign of the everliving Christ, we Christians who have trusted in the Lord. In the midst of a selfish and cynical world, it is we who remember salvation, and we who minister it to those to come. It is a holy task, and it is our task. God could make Christians out of the stones in the ground, but he does not. God could dazzle the world with supernatural spectacle, but he does not (and indeed, the faithlessness of the Israelites in Sinai bears witness to how ephemeral the effect of such a demonstration might well be). Instead, the Father has put the future of the faith in our hands. Therefore we must consider that we also point to the faith as the apostles did, in words of course where we may, but also in our acts. We must live as though we believed, as though the commandments of the LORD apply to us. And we may then have courage to face the doubt of the world, and to repeat the faith that we learned of old from those who recount the testimony of those who saw and touched the flesh of the risen Lord, Jesus the Christ.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

"Put Your Hand in Some Vague Spiritual Feeling About Me, and Believe!"

There seems to be a running Easter series of National Cathedral sermons against taking scripture seriously about the resurrection, and Bryan Owen is here to fill us in on the latest, a Low Sunday effort from the dean.

My Thomas sermon, which will likely put up tonight (see here), didn't follow either of the dean's problem lines, mostly because it wasn't really about Thomas. But then, neither is the dean's thesis: it's another entry in the weird catalogue of church officials pushing the line that, well, Church Officials as a class are tyrants intent on imposing their dictatorial rule over the masses. My immediate reaction to that is "what then are you doing as a priest in a hierarchical church, you tool of the establishment?" but my guess is that I'm supposed to take on faith (as it were) that our new spiritual overlords are benevolent, or at least not so despotic.

But then, one comes across various cranks who complain about the enforcement of single, "despotic" picture of the field by a scientific establishment which refuses to accept their eccentric theories. Theology, at least among Anglicans, may never have insisted on such unanimity of viewpoint, but anyone who has studied the history of theological development can see (if they were not taught outright) that progress has consisted largely of identifying errors. It's obvious in the most blatant and stupid fashion that the New Testament texts intend to teach something, a specific thing, and it's really quite obvious that this particular story intends to teach us something about both the reality of the resurrection and function of faith in connecting us, who cannot be witnesses by sight. The only possible reason for dissent is that one does not believe, but then, of what use are the faithless as the church's ministers?

The dean thus simply erases everyone but Thomas from the tale, and most especially we blessed who have not seen, and yet believe. He even erases Jesus. But what's important isn't how Thomas or the others believe, but what they believe, and that we believe it. And we only know that through the church and her teachings.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Will the Last Orthodox Bishop Please Turn Out the Lights

Having ranted about Virginia, now I find from Bryan Owen that the Bishop of Washington doesn't really seem to believe in the Creed either, at least not the part that says that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day. How else am I supposed to interpret a flat statement that "we don’t know what happened to Jesus after his death, anymore than we can know what will happen to us"?

Some priest, in a "sherry and knives in the vicarage" moment, once told me that what the bishops were doing when laying on hands during a consecration was removing the candidate's spine. These days it seems more likely that they are removing any kind of commitment to orthodoxy. And for all the wimpiness of the 1979 ordinal, we find on the very first page of the consecration rite the candidate is given the charge to "guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church". The first part of that charge is given ritual embodiment two pages later, when the candidate is made to lead those assembled in the recitation of the Creed. So there is no way in heaven or on earth or in hell below that I can find it acceptable that a bishop issue statements that they do not really believe what they say every Sunday. Pike at least had the decency to quit, not that he hadn't effectively trashed the office by that point.

And I do not see the point in founding my life in an untruth. It is a popular defense of such views to claim that the scriptural tales somehow express Truths, but when I at least press against them, seeking meaning, the only substantial truth that I get is that these people don't want to be caught sharing the same theological space as fundamentalists and other political reprehensibles. An apophasis swallows the rest: they can never get to the point of saying that they actually believe anything real about the world. It recalls the "bizarre form of heresy" Florence King attributed to her grandmother: Christianity apparently reminds them of classless places like Lynchburg, Jerry Falwell's one time base of operations. The only solid truth I find is a kind of snobbery, one which has no appeal to me if only because I was raised by mainline Presbyterians instead of foot-washing Baptists or pre-Vat.-II nuns. It's one thing to admit the plainly obvious, that the scriptural accounts are not, whatever their testimony, perfect historical records. But I see no intellectual warrant for the presumption that we can go back and do a better job of presenting what happened to them than they did. The alternative to rejecting the roughly literal version of their accounts isn't some other scriptural truth: it's simply making up one's own religion and imputing it to them. And I find that absolutely uncompelling. The church's teaching may be faulty, but the historical connection backward renders it intrinsically more reliable than modernist restorationism.

I had hopes that Budde would represent some sort of relief from the confrontational tone of the past. But what good does it do when she reneges on her promise to defend the faith? It's impossible to mount a theological apologia of my church under these conditions; every snide remark from my conservative Catholic acquaintances about the vacuity of Anglican theology is vindicated every time one of our bishops publishes remarks such as these. We don't deserve to have a future if we keep going on like this.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

What in the Hell Is Wrong With Virginia?

So, several weeks back we find an Episcopal parish in Virginia presenting the essentially apostate John Dominic Crossam in a lenten program. Now we find out that on Good Friday another parish in the diocese had John Shelby Spong preaching his heresies, which seem to have gotten worse than ever. What is the matter with Bishop Johnston, that he thinks there is anything at all OK about giving these guys lectern time, much less allowing them to preach?

There is no way in hell that a man who denounces the Nicene Creed has any business doing anything that bears the slightest resemblance to teaching in this church. Those of us with a little theological sophistication can tell that Crossan and Spong and their ilk are shovelling theological crap of their own excretion, but the average parishioner (and for that matter cleric) shouldn't be made to sort through this dung heap. The failure to defrock Spong needs to be rethought; unfortunately Crossan isn't one of ours that we can discipline him, but the failure of the lofty persons at 815 to denounce these presentations leads one to suspect that either they share the same inability to repeat the Creed and mean it, or that they are so absorbed in keeping their grip on church buildings that they've lost interest in what is said inside them, other than when it comes to a-heterosexual approval. It's hardly out of the question that both are true.

This is where the deeper rot in the church lies. I can see how we can disagree on sexual morality and on the ministerial authority on women, even to the extent of disagreeing with Paul's teaching. When we cannot step up to a commitment to the most basic statements of theological principle, to which we all state allegiance every Sunday, it sends the message that we are intellectual frauds. In a Catholic or Orthodox church, the priest who allowed this nonsense would be called on the carpet by the bishop and would stand a real risk of being inhibited and deprived of office. And they would be entirely right to do so. Our bishops should be doing likewise, lest we be reduced to The Dilettante Episcopal Church.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Thus Speaks the Art Magisterium

So once again a rare opportunity opens up for the Washingtonian to see some of the great Pre-Raphaelite paintings in person, and the mandarins at the New York Times feel the need to tell everyone to stay home. Well, actually they suggest that the visitor to the National Gallery of Art skip this exhibit and step around the corner to look at the Impressionists instead. OK, well, I suppose it might not occur to the New Yorkers among us that any Washingtonian with any interest at all in painting has already seen the Cezannes and Manets and Monets and Cassatts, or the big Renoir at the Phillips. And I've seen all the Flemish and Italians, too, as well as the huge Morse over at the Corcoran, or the various Peales (painted by various Peales at that, and occasionally featuring other Peales) scattered about the various museums.

But the NYT point here isn't advice, but snobbery. It's deliciously ironic to see the Times's reviewer bring up Jackson Pollock, because the first picture I inevitably think of when it comes to this phase of the culture wars is Norman Rockwell's witty spoof. The mandarins at the NYT need High Art to lead inevitably to abstract expressionism and thence to the current po-mo cesspool of gallery and public place stunt art. But the truth is that it didn't go that way, as the review kind of admits. Our reviewer sneers at Thomas Kinkade, but his blurry hyper-"realism" owes little or nothing to the Pre-Raphaelites or their principles, and indeed could just as well be laid on Impressionist shoulders.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - ProserpineI haven't been to the exhibit yet, but I find it striking that of the nine works the Times shows in its slide show, four are by Holman Hunt. Also, the only late works shown are one of the Hunts and a Burne-Jones tapestry. Perhaps the show includes some of Rosetti's "stunners" (e.g. Proserpine, seen at right) but Fanny Cornforth as Lady Lilith is the closest we come to that. The busy symbolism of the early paintings had largely been abandoned by everyone but Hunt by the time he painted his version of The Lady of Shalott (and anyway, a turbulent busy-ness is kind of the point in that canvas). But somehow, I don't get the message that the aesthetics are where things go wrong here.

It is extremely telling that their slideshow includes two of the most religiously controversial paintings by the P-Rs. Millais's Christ in the House of His Parents was wildly condemned in its day (remembering that this was one of the first paintings the group exhibited) for its depiction of the Holy Family as people rather than as icons. It is sentimental, in a way, but that wasn't what set people on edge. Another painting, The Light of the World by Holman Hunt, was on the contrary wildly acclaimed in its day, becoming one of the most widely reproduced paintings of the time; but these days its elaborate and earnest symbolism is disdained, loudly. And of course, both are religious subjects, as was very often the case. The Victorian Age, at least in Britain and the USA, was an intensely religious period; the Pre-Raphaelites were tightly coupled to the Gothic revival and the Oxford Movement. All of this backward-looking reformation counts as sin, in the reviewer's eye.

But the worse sin is this: that they are the forefathers of Norman Rockwell. There's a curious admission in the review that there's a lot more love (outside the High Art hothouse of the New York art world) for the successors of the Pre-Raphaelites than for those approved of by the art establishment. The great American illustrator school may not have been directly inspired by these Englishmen, but for instance N. C. Wyeth's mural at the National Cathedral could just have well been painted within the movement. But one can condemn the artistic enormities of Kinkade's saccharine landscapes without signing up for the immense fraud that is the mainstream of modernist high art. The terrible truth is that the heritage of the Armory Show is not only a lot of really dull and manifestly ugly art, but a tedious posturing pretension on the part of the kind of people who show up for openings at New York galleries and make cutting remarks about bourgeois taste. The fact that most 20th century art is with-malice-aforethought crap goes a lot farther in explaining why most people have no use for it than their blighted taste. Anyway, there's no real sentimental difference between Rockwell's domestic scenes and the flowery scenes which are at the heart of Impressionism, save that, perhaps, it's easier for people in a certain social class to see themselves in a garden party in Central Park than in a diner or a back alley or in any town smaller than Manhattan (which as everyone a couple of hundred miles from it realizes is a very small town indeed).

And by the way, if the reviewer would like to see the full flower of Victorian sentimentality, I would invite him to look at a late Millais such as Cherry Ripe. If the reviewer cannot see the difference between this and the beauty of the great P-R paintings, then I would suggest that she get out of the city for some serious taste-broadening.