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new Cosmos that Michael Faraday was raised in a "fundamentalist" faith, but the truth is that The Fundamentals would not be published until half a century after his death.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.