The Source of Life

Sunday’s sermon is now up here: The Source of Life

Then What?

My last column argued that evangelical communities in Canada are not persecuted. To say so not only mocks the actual persecution of many Christians around the world, but also pushes otherwise sympathetic people away from our concerns, and, frankly, makes us look ridiculous. The Gospel is offensive enough on its own; we don’t need to help it along by behaving foolishly ourselves!

Does that mean that the discomfort many of us now experience is based on imaginary events? Certainly not.

In his book An Anxious Age, the American public intellectual Joseph Bottum, accounts for the current cultural climate in the United States, though with obvious parallels to Canada for readers north of the border. Bottum argues that those who set the cultural agenda are re-shaping institutions according to their moral convictions—as, in fact, they have always done. What marks them out from previous generations is not their “post-Christian” cultural vision—that has been true for nearly 50 years. Rather, it is the evangelical zeal with which the vision is pursued that is different. The once muted rhetoric of the “city on a hill” is now back, but the civil Christianity from which it was originally derived is gone. Provocatively, Bottum names this group the “elect,” highlighting that in demeanour, if not in religious content, the new culture shapers are very much like their Puritan ancestors.

Francis Fukuyama, the American political scientist, has coined the term “Megalothymia,” (the compulsive need to feel morally superior to others) to label the mindset that underlies the activism. The “elect” must not only be right; they must be seen to be right. As a result, those groups or individuals perceived to be out of step are not merely mistaken, but morally suspect as well: objects first of pity, then scorn, and finally, sanction. What I called “soft discrimination” in my last column.

If Bottum and Fukuyama can help the Canadian evangelical community to get a sense of what is going on, how should we respond? I’d like to suggest a two-step approach.

First imagine the worst possible future and trust in God anyway.

Here’s how Francis Cardinal George of Chicago described such a future in 2010: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.” The quote has been making the rounds following George’s death on April 17.

The Cardinal’s point was not that events will unfold this way, but that if they do, the Church will still be present, seasoning society with the Gospel, and even watering society’s soil with martyrs’ blood. Why? Because it’s Jesus’s Church. Cardinal George makes me wonder how much of our rhetoric reveals a fear for the future. How much of that fear reflects a lack of trust in God? Can we not trust, that even if the worst possible future comes to pass, God will care for his own? No matter the future, that future belongs to God.

Second, take note of the present and live faithfully and fully in it.

St. Gianna Molla put it best: “As to the past, let us entrust it to God’s mercy, the future to divine providence. Our task is to live holy in the present moment.” I understand her to say, there is no point pining for past privilege, even as there is no value in worrying for a future that belongs to God. To pine and to fret are distractions from the mission of holy living here and now. They are, in short, sins.

And if  in some dystopian future whether near or far, we are called to suffer (as so many of our brothers and sisters outside North America have been and are now) hopefully, we’ll rejoice that we will have been counted worthy to suffer disgrace for the Name (Acts 5:41). Until that day . . . .

Sermon: The Good Shepherd

We were thrilled to have +Stephen Andrews with us for our annual episcopal visit today. Bishop Stephen confirmed my daughter, Sara and baptized Anne. This is his sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday: The Good Shepherd

Does Your Heart Burn?

Here’s today’s sermon. Quite a motley crew of characters–Cleopas and his companion, Frodo and Sam, Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle and Lucy Pevensie all show up. A very Inkling sermon indeed! Does Your Heart Burn?

Review: Traces of the Trinity (Peter J. Leithart, Brazos, 2015)

Readers of the blog will know that Peter J. Leithart appears regularly in some form or other here. I have referred to his little books, Against Christianity and Between Babel and Beast. I have reviewed Defending Constantine and Athanasius. I link to his essays on First Thingswebsite regularly. So, I want to start by thanking Baker/Brazos for sending me this book.

Like all of Leithart’s work, it is quirky and that’s where I want to begin. J. K. Rowling advises her young readers that to be equipped for life, they might sometimes have to go through it diagonally (Diagon Alley). They might, in other words, have to adopt a perspective that, if not counter to that of the majority, is at least slightly askew. Leithart does the same in his work: in Against Christianity and Defending Constantine he takes the decidedly minority side that “Post-Constantinian Christianity,” as exemplified in the works of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas is deeply mistaken. In Between Babel and Beast, he offers a theological justification for the fact of empire and a warning that the latest global empire, America, is on the verge of becoming beastly. Through it all, he consistently manages to mortify both the “Christian Right,” and the “Christian Left.” Which is why I like him.

So what makes Traces quirky? Well, for a start, it’s odd to find a Reformed theologian this side of Barth engaging in unapologetically natural theology. And that’s what this work is. In fact, if you listen for it, you can almost hear the Basel professor putting down his wheelbarrow of books, banging his shoe and shouting “Nein!” in heaven. Having said that though, it’s not what one typically expects from natural theology. That is, it is decidedly NOT an attempt to work up from foundational claims about the nature of the world to the being of God. Rather, it is natural theology that is decidedly Reformed, and one that has clearly drunk deeply from the wells of Radical Orthodoxy, and especially the work of John Milbank.

Thus, the books grounding assumption is straightforward: if God is Trinity, then we should find traces of the Trinity—trinitarian patterns, reflections, vestiges—in what God has made. Specifically, Leithart takes one of the most difficult theological concepts—perichoresis or mutual indwelling—and looks for glimpses of it in creation.

Now a tangent. Perichoresis was a theological term hammered into meaning on the anvil of the Christological debates that culminated in Chalcedon. It was an attempt to explain how the natures of Christ, human and divine, subsist in one person without mixture or division. Each indwells the other such that each remains itself while at the same fully attuned to, and acting in harmony with the other. As the identity of the person of Christ receded and the identity of God came to the fore, perichoresis was pressed into service again, this time in order to describe the relationships that mark the inner life of God. Each person of the Trinity so indwells the other two that he is fully attuned to and utterly in harmony with them. None can be divided from the others. And yet, each remains a person.

Where does Leithart see traces of this reality? In the human/world relationship (ch. 1), in intra-human relationships (ch. 2), in erotic relationships in particular (ch. 3), in time (ch. 4), in language (ch. 5), in music (ch. 6), and in ethics (ch. 7). If such traces are present, what does this mean for actual practice, both generally human and specifically Christian? This question is taken up in chapter 8. Finally, chapter 9 provides an appropriate concluding theological gloss to the preceding discussion.

One will invariably be reminded of the social trinitarianism that was “all the rage” about twenty years ago, especially as is found in the work of the late Stanley J. Grenz and Catharine LaCugna (among many others). But it is best not to press this similarity too deeply. This movement has been rightly criticized as implicitly Feuerbachian—projecting from “the society we need” to an understanding of God that will support it. It ends up saying a lot about us, but nothing at all about God.

While Leithart does use some similar vocabulary (especially perichoresis), this is not the direction his work takes. Rather it is exactly the opposite. Moving from the identity of God as disclosed in the person and work of Jesus Christ, Leithart seeks to discern traces of that identity in what this God has made, and only then ask what lived difference this should make.

I found this book hard to start—like I said, its quirky—but once the lightbulbs started going on, I couldn’t put it down. Highly recommended for theological students and seminarians.

Doubt, Scepticism, and Wounded Love

Today’s sermon, the second in our series, Responses to the Resurrection is now up. have a listen.

Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother . . . .

One of my tasks in the parish is to be a catechist: to prepare candidates for baptism and confirmation by teaching them the basics of the faith. It is my practice to do so through Lent, and to use the Apostles’ Creed (what Christians believe), The Ten Commandments (how Christians act), and the Lord’s Prayer (how Christians live and worship) as guides. This past year, it was my especial privilege to prepare my daughter to affirm for herself the promises Rachel and I, and Jason and Kara made on her behalf at the chancel steps of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church in 2004.

As we were working through the commandments, we got to “Honor thy father and thy mother.” This is the fifth commandment and the first of the second table of the Law. It stands at the head of those laws that fall broadly under what it means to “love thy neighbor” (Leviticus 19:18). “What do you think this means, Sara?” came the fairly standard start-off question.

“It means that I should do what you and mommy tell me to do.”

“Why?”

“So that I can have a good life.”

Nothing terribly radical in that exchange. But as we talked further, some deep observations began to take shape between Sara and me. Ones that I (to my chagrin) had never thought before.

We had spent the first part of the previous lesson talking about the notions of covenant and mutual obligation (You will be my people and I will be your God). We talked about God’s act (deliverance from slavery) and promise (I will bring you into the land). And we talked about the people’s response (obedience in the land). All that came flooding back when we began to reflect on what it means to honor one’s parents.

As we talked, Sara and I came to the conclusion, first, that the fifth commandment was a mini-covenant. That is, it implied responsibilities on both sides. Children were to honor their parents, yes, and to do so in an asymmetrically related way to that in which the people were to honor God. If that’s the case, though, then there must also be some sort of obligation attached. It is this: parents are obligated to teach their children the covenant, to live it out in front of them, to talk about it when they lay down and rise up, when they are at home or on the road (Deut. 6). If children are to honor parents, then, of course, parents are to behave honorably. And teaching the covenant is what honorable behavior looks like.

The next conclusion then emerged easily: “that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you” is not the individual promise of a long life, but rather has to do with the continuity of the covenant for the community in the land. God’s promise of the good, land-ed life is contingent upon the passing of the covenant from parent to child through successive generations. If parents fail to teach; if children fail to honor, then the covenant will collapse.

“Daddy,” came the most honest question yet, “is this why there are no kids in our church?” While her assessment of “no kids” was false, Sara had made a deep connection: our third conclusion. We have had two generations of failed catechesis in homes. Homes in which the faith was neither practiced nor taught, but farmed out to the ministry professionals to attend to. The covenant was broken. Parents have failed to teach their children; children have failed to honor their parents. I can’t help but wonder, after all the sociological assessments of millennials and their (lack of) religious affiliation are completed, a lot might be explained by a thesis as simple as this one. At some point, parents had nothing to pass on, and that’s exactly what their kids learned.

And finally the fourth: our youth oriented culture (no, not the bugaboo secular culture, but the youth-oriented church culture) has it exactly backwards. Making our primary goal attracting young families or youth or children may well end up being a recipe for a slow decline and death. Sara and I decided that we should belong to a churchy church, one that taught what it had received, one that worshiped in continuity with generations of previous believers, in the hope that the promise would not fail and that our days in the land would be long.

It might not be time to write ICHABOD over the doors just yet.

Spiritual Friendship by Wesley Hill (Brazos, 2015)

I have been looking forward to this book for a while—its arrival had been rumoured for some time among facebook friends. My anticipation had to do with both the subject—friendship, and the author, Wesley Hill, an Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA.

I am drawn to Hill’s work for three reasons. First, because while we’ve never met, we share a significant amount of professional and personal overlap. We both studied at Durham University, for example, and indeed we both found those years to be transformational: we both became Anglicans while there. We have common friends. The evangelical Anglican world (whether we are Episcopalian, Anglican Church of Canada, ANiC or ACNA) is a small one and we are just one degree removed. At points, when I read his work—I was introduced to him through his remarkable book, Washed and Waiting—I can almost anticipate what’s coming next and yet am surprised at how he takes and develops what I had “just known” was coming. In many ways, he seems to me to be a kindred soul.

Second, and following on, he inhabits the ever shrinking middle in the current debate about how best to welcome gay and lesbian people in Christian churches. He, along with other voices like blogger and Catholic convert Eve Tushnet, embraces the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage and does so as a gay man, thereby making him an object of pity and/or suspicion by people on both sides. He is either woefully mistaken or worse, some sort of “Trojan Horse” for the extremes, both liberal and conservative. It may be that I have my own quixotic bent toward doomed battles, what J.R.R. Tolkien called “the long defeat,” but for whatever reason, that makes him attractive to me. Although I am straight (that likely didn’t need to be said; it’s pretty obvious!), Hill and I are fellow travellers (albeit lonely ones) on this journey.

Third, I am drawn to Hill’s work because of a shared appreciation for C. S. Lewis’s work, and in this context especially, the little book, The Four Loves. Hill’s book, Spiritual Friendship is in many ways a friendly criticism of Lewis’s chapter on friendship. And that is what I want to focus my remarks on.

Hill and Lewis agree that modernity doesn’t quite know what to do with friendships. They have been displaced by other loves, notably, in Hill’s view, by an idealized and idolized view of marriage as the relationship without which no one will ever be complete. Modernity simply has no category for strong same-sex friendships and so must sexualize them. For example, David and Jonathan, or Aelred and his monks, or the rare but real Christian practice of “brother-making,” (vowed friendships), these must really be covers for not simply erotic, but sexualized love. Hill and Lewis both argue that this is a little like the assertion, “There’s an invisible cat in that chair.” The lack of a cat, rather than being counter-evidence, is regarded as conclusive proof of feline invisibility. What might happen, wonders Hill, if we take the Bible, the monks, and the vowed friends, at face value? How might that challenge our views of friendship?

Here Hill parts from Lewis, and rightly so. Lewis’s view of friendship is, for all of the above, very modern and not very medieval. It is primarily mental; it is bent toward a shared interest or project (here Lewis uses the metaphor of the friends standing side by side, looking at a common object rather than standing face-to-face, looking at each other). Hill counters that deep same-sex friendship blurs the lines with other loves—at points erotic, at points affectionate. While this certainly echoes my own experience with two friendships, I agree with Hill that it may well be the unique insight that gays and lesbians offer to the Church—and have been offering already for many centuries. Many modern western churches (I refuse to say the Church here) have followed modernity into a withered and withering conception of friendship that potentially does great harm not only to their gay and lesbian members, but to their straight singles, too (and having been a Christian single until my 30s, I speak also from experience).

The last chapter, “Patterns of the Possible,” is particularly helpful for those of us engaged in parish ministry for its suggestions.

I highly recommend this little work to all who wish to be unsettled and enriched.

Terror in the Face of Life

Here is today’s sermon, based on Mark 16:1-8: Terror in the Face of Life

Forgiveness is the First Word.

A sermon for Good Friday: Forgiveness is the First Word