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Some Help From St. Augustine

But God made you without you.  You didn’t, after all, give any consent to God making you.  How were you to consent, if you didn’t yet exist?  So while he made you without you, he doesn’t justify you without you.  So he made you without your knowing it, he justifies you with your willing consent to it. Yet it’s he that does the justifying… (Augustine, Sermon 169.13)

John Wesley quotes this passage from Augustine in his sermon entitled, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” itself based on St. Paul’s admonishion in Phil. 2 to “work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.”  In the he explores the connection between God’s work of salvation and our own effort to make that real in our lived existence; biblically, this comes from the dual convictions (both from Paul) that God works in us towards salvation but that we, too are expected to play a part.

This whole notion, of course, is anathema for the hard-core Reformed folks.  (Incidentally, does anyone know what Calvin said about this verse from Philippians?)  For the double predestination gang, God wills us from the foundation of the world either to damnation or salvation.  We don’t get a hand in it; it is totally and completely a work of God upon us.  As Jonathan Edwards wrote, most terrifyingly, we are all stretched out over the abyss of Hell, the wrath of God raging against us, and only his unmerited grace will save a few of us from this fiery pit.  Awesome.

For Arminians like myself, though, this is problematic.  We see God’s grace, the enactment of His love that works for our salvation, not as “irresistible” (as the Synod of Dort put it) but as a gift.  Certainly, it is a gift that must be received with joy, unwrapped, and used, but an undeserved gift nonetheless.

In some ways, this concept bears a closer family resemblance to the Orthodox spiritual tradition than the Western.  The Eastern notion of theosis, of becoming God-like, is quite akin to the Wesleyan emphasis on holiness/sanctification and our somewhat unique doctrine of Christian perfection.  The East tells us, “God became man so that man might become God.”  This is stronger than, say, John Wesley would put it, but expresses essentially the same activity.

But then I’ve been reading Barth, and Barth, with the Reformed tradition from which he came, emphasizes the initiative of God over the work of humanity.  Known for his rabid christocentrism, Barth, like Bonhoeffer, is not friendly to the pietist tradition (kissing cousins to us Wesleyans) which he sees as a kind of semi-Pelagianism.  I love Barth’s project (though I am an amateur Barthian), but I’ve been concerned over how to gel this with Methodist theology.

Only an intellectually restless recent seminary grad like myself would worry about this, but, well, it drives me crazy when things don’t fit together.  So I’m working on it.  They say “build a bridge and get over it.”  I think this Augustine quote is a step in that direction, a good sized piece of that bridge.  I find it profoundly helpful for Augustine, the (perhaps misused) great-granddaddy of Reformed theology, to be expressing so clearly a sense of grace that works with us rather than arbitrarily on us.

Wesleyans would call this “cooperative grace.”  In other words, grace that must be enacted, lived; it is essentially the act of receiving a gift (the giver of the gift is the prime actor, and the gift cannot come from oneself – but still, the gift can be rejected).  Gifts, afterall, can be abused, forgotten, tossed aside, or trampled upon.

So it is with grace.  God will not save us against our will; He loves us enough to let us have our way, even if it is harmful to us.  (Think of God’s “hardening the hearts” of various characters throughout the Scripture.)  No, “God doesn’t justify you without you.”  Randy Maddox, probably the greatest Methodist theologian working today – and one of my teachers – calls this “Responsible Grace.”  The response matters.  It is a small part – but it is our portion.
Thank you, Augustine.  Bite me, John Piper.  Amen.

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A Simple Question On Health Care

From Yahoo News:

For the first time, most Americans would be required to purchase insurance, and face penalties if they refused. Much of the money in the bill would be devoted to subsidies to help families at incomes of up to $88,000 a year pay their premiums.

Let’s leave aside the question of requiring the purchase of insurance; we would rather have a coercive government than a free citizenry, because freedom requires something of us.  Fine.  Besides, many states, like mine, already require all drivers to have basic car insurance, and so this isn’t a huge leap.

Helping families with incomes of $88K buy insurance?  If I’m not mistaken, that is almost triple the poverty rate.  It is well over double what I make, and well into middle class.  Why do these families need subsidies to buy health insurance?  Many of these families can afford new cars, flat-screen tv’s, and regular sushi dinners.  Why the hell should the government pay for part of their insurance when someone of that income bracket, generally, CAN afford health care and simply CHOOSES not to have it?

Abortion is a whole separate issue. I’m honestly not sure if this bill allows for government funded abortion or not, honestly.    My own inclination is to side with the Catholic Bishops over Nancy Pelosi.  But why did this debate only revolve around abortion?  Let’s start with this: a government that won’t allow us to make “bad” choices is a government bordering – at minimum – on the despotic.  Welcome to the land of change.

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The Pope on Sex, the Historical Jesus, and (maybe) Obama

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What does it look like when the head of the Roman Catholic Church, the man in Saint Peter’s seat, is also one of the most profound and prolific systematic theologians of our age?  It looks like now.  That is precisely the situation with Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.  I’m not a Catholic, but you don’t have to be to appreciate his work.  Ratzinger has gotten an unfair reputation for being a pit bull, but in reality this is a liberal reaction to his being a faithful Catholic.  He was, for years, the head of the CDF, the theological watchdog of the RCC; but in his writing we see him as a servant of his Lord and his Lord’s Church.  I’ve previously highlighted some comments from his excellent little book Eschatology, which is well worth your read.  I’m currently working my way through his Introduction to Christianity, which is an extended meditation on the Apostle’s Creed.  Some highlights:

On Sex…

…the apparent liberation of love and its conversation into a matter of impulse mean the delivery of man to the autonomous powers of sex and Eros, to whose merciless slavery he falls victim just when he is under the illusion that he has freed himself.  When he eludes God, the gods put out their hands to grasp him. (114)

What prose! What wonderful use of irony, and how true!  Watch TV for ten minutes and tell me that the whole generation under 40 is not under the hands of “sex and Eros” under the guise of “liberated” love.  Seeking to free ourselves,we have, like Icarus, been too care-free and are in danger of falling to our deaths.

On  the “Historical” Jesus…

For my part I must confess that, quite apart from the Christian faith and simply from my acquaintance with history, I find it preferable and easier to believe that God became man than that such a conglomeration of hypotheses represents the truth. (215)

This is Ratzinger’s take on the thrust of historical Jesus research, which purports to explain how a failed Messiah, Jesus, was gradually transformed into the Christ of faith that the modern, rationalist mind can neither comprehend nor tolerate.  The more I read and reflect on the phenomenon, the more I loathe the whole historical Jesus project.  As Ratzinger points out, one cannot neatly separate the man Jesus from the office of Christ, the figure of history from the Son who is worshiped in faith.  His conclusion shows the absurdity of this “quest” with great humor and precision.

On Obama (?)…

Hope would become utopianism if its goal were only man’s own product. (242)

This is not entirely fair.  I admit this up front; this book was written well before Obama was even a presidential candidate.  Here he is speaking of how Christian faith looks out in hope  – not simply thinking back to a fantastic origin – but forward to a blessed future for the whole cosmos.  We have hope because of what God has revealed in Jesus Christ, not because of our own capacities, ideas, and projects.

That said, I connected this with Obama because of the clever and effective use by his staff of the word ‘hope’.  I’m not surprised that an increasingly secularized, de-Christianed country went for this.  If Marx and his followers have taught us anything, it is that people want hope by the bushel, just leave God out of it.  (Marx has, at his core, an eschatology much like Christianity: the view of a perfect future of peace and justice.  Unfortunately for Marx, the materialist, bereft of God, must accomplish this future of his own accord.)

I was, and continue to be disturbed, however, that so many Christians bought into the President’s rhetoric of ‘hope’.  We witnessed a political usurpation – a hijacking – of a theological virtue, and many of us simply cheered without a second thought.  But as Ratzinger rightly points out, ‘hope’ without reference to Jesus Christ is a void; it is no hope at all; it can only tend towards the meaningless entropy of utopian fantasy.

Liberal Christians excoriated the Christian Right for taking religious cues for their visions of “family values” and morality, and in general, for blurring the lines between politics and faith.  But liberal Christians have seemed unable to stop themselves from making the exact same play now that it is their turn to call the shots.  Alas, more sweet irony.

Enough ranting.  Read some Ratzinger…you’ll be glad you did.

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On being Christian in a postmodern context

by Drew 5 Comments

I want to highlight a recently (re-)posted article by Joseph Bottum at First Things.  He reflects on being Christian in light of both modern and postmodern sensibilities.  I admit that philosophy is not a strong point of mine, and I will need another couple of readings to really digest this, but it is worth your time.  Here is a sample:

Of course believers are tempted, when they hear postmodern deconstructions of modernity, to argue in support of modernity. After all, believers share with modern nonbelievers a trust in the reality of truth. They affirm the efficacy of human action, the movement of history towards a goal, the possibility of moral and aesthetic judgments. But believers share with postmoderns the recognition that truth rests on a faith that has itself been the sole subject of the long attack of modern times. The most foolish thing believers could do is to make concessions now to a modernity that is already bankrupt (and that despises them anyway) and thus to make themselves subject to a second attack—the attack of the postmodern on the modern. Faithful believers are not responsible for the emptiness of modernity. They struggled against it for as long as they could, and they must not give in now. They must not, at this late date, become scientific, bureaucratic, and technological; skeptical, self-conscious, and self-mocking.

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Insulted at a nuptial Mass…or, ‘Aggressive Ecumenism’

What follows is a response I wrote to a Catholic priest who presided at a wedding mass I recently attended.  The names have been deleted to protect all parties.  While the mass was a traditional Latin Rite mass, that was not the issue.  The issue was the homily, in which he openly insulted Protestant Eucharistic practices and implied that all weddings outside the Catholic church were, in some sense, illegitimate.  I admit this is more for my own catharsis than anything – I had a great deal of rage initially, for which I have asked forgiveness – but I thought some of you might find it interesting.  My hope is that this embodies ecumenism at its best – dialogue that can bear fruit because it engages with another’s tradition out of deep respect and extensive study.   Enjoy:

Rev. _____,

        A short while ago, I attended the _______ nuptial Mass which you presided over.  I should tell you I am not close to either family; I came with my girlfriend who was a high school friend of the groom.  I am writing you because I must take issue with some things you said in your homily. I apologize for the delay, but I needed some time to get my thoughts in order and ensure I was writing with the correct intentions.  Your comments regarding the non-Catholic celebration of the Eucharist, as well as your more general comments about wedding rituals, both hurt and offended me.

            I doubt there were many people who caught your off-hand remarks about the Eucharist.  With the exception of my girlfriend, I do not believe any of the other Protestants in the audience understood what you were saying.  I, however, did, and found them profoundly inappropriate.  I recognize that Catholics and Protestants have different sacramental theologies (and of course, there is a great divergence within Protestant communities), but I think this is something to lament rather than make light of.  As I recall, you asserted, with a smirk, that Holy Eucharist was not just a “symbol” or a “metaphor,” and I believe you also used the phrase “real presence.”  I actually agree with all of that.  I have no problem with transubstantiation.  I have spent a great deal of time, in my young pastorate, trying to teach my congregation to have more reverence for the sacrament.  This is part of a wider movement within my denomination to work towards a more frequent celebration of Communion, a change for which I am greatly hopeful.

            But, to get back to my point, what purpose does it serve to mock other traditions?  Do you really believe there were Catholics there who thought the presence of Christ in the elements was only symbolic?  To put it succinctly, it struck me as a cheap shot.  I also took it personally, because I hold a great deal of respect for the Catholic tradition, particularly in worship and theology.  I grew up in a Southern Baptist-dominated area of North Carolina, where all kinds of horrific stereotypes about Catholic persist.  I am very grateful that I had teachers and friends that helped me to appreciate the beauty of the Catholic faith, and this is a lesson I try to instill in my parishioners.

            Furthermore, it seems disingenuous to mock Protestant practices when Catholic teaching has at least a modicum of respect for them.  Vatican II’s decree on Ecumenism states,

“Our separated brothers and sisters also carry out many liturgical actions of the Christian religion.  In ways that vary according to the condition of each church or community, these liturgical actions most certainly can truly engender a life of grace, and, one must say, are capable of giving access to that communion which is salvation.” (503, “Decree on Ecumenism,” in Vatican Council II: The Basic Sixteen Documents.  Northport: Costello Publishing Company 2007.)

I take this to mean that, despite our substantial differences, Roman Catholics believe the sacramental rites of other Christian communities can and may, through the Spirit, convey some measure of grace.  If this is the case, I believe it is not too much to hope that our practices be respected. 

            Thus, I did not anticipate the traditions of my own church to be publicly mocked at a Catholic mass.  It strikes me as particularly egregious to do this at an occasion where there are likely to be non-Catholics.  In a few months I will be marrying two dear friends of mine, one of whom is Catholic and the other of which is Baptist.  I do not believe it will be appropriate to the occasion or to the glory of God to make light of either tradition.  I expect the same courtesy from clergy colleagues, especially in public.

            I was also taken aback by your general comments about marriage.  I confess, I was nodding my head as you went on about people getting married “skydiving, scuba diving,” and the like.  I too believe that a marriage is a holy occasion which is a most appropriate for a church.  For anyone professing the Christian faith, if their marriage is indeed to be a means of grace, a union which is worthy to be compared to Christ and his Church, it should take place in a church proper.  Fine.  Excellent.  But why go on to say that everyone else – the skydivers, scuba divers, beachgoers, and dare I say Protestants?! – are only “pretending” to be married?       

            Again, this serves no purpose.  It comes across as cynical mockery, whatever truth there may be to the statement.  I was particularly grieved for some other young people who were there, several of whom were born into Christian families (two of them were baptized Catholics who had fallen away) but no longer identified themselves as such.  This was the statement that most perked their ears and turned them off in a service where they already felt alienated.  Christianity has, as I’m sure you know, in almost all quarters gained a reputation for being judgmental, narrow-minded, and arrogant.  Such comments only reinforce these unfortunate biases.  What Vatican II said about ecumenical dialogue should ring true for both clergy and laity on all occasions when we gather for worship:

“…catholic theologians, standing fast by the teaching of the church yet searching together with separated brothers and sisters into the divine mysteries, should do so with love for the truth, with charity, and with humility.” (511, “Decree On Ecumenism”)

            The above quote applies equally to the aforementioned comments about Eucharist.  Rev. _____, what deeply hurts me about all of this is that I went to that service excited and interested to experience a Latin Rite mass.  My last year in seminary, I gained a profound appreciation for and interest in the Catholic Church when I took a course on the theology of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI.  The professor, Dr. Geoffrey Wainwright, is a Methodist pastor and theologian who has been involved in many of the dialogues between our churches (such as the discussions leading up to the joint Catholic/Lutheran/Methodist declaration on the Doctrine of Justification).  He became acquainted with the Holy Father when then-Cardinal Ratzinger was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  Dr. Wainwright has a deep respect for His Holiness, both as a theologian and as a successor to Peter, a respect that he ingrained in all of us who took the course.

            While searching for your address on the internet, I stumbled across a piece you wrote on the Latin Rite.  Near the end, you recommended reading one of the Holy Father’s earlier works, The Spirit of the Liturgy.  This was one of the monographs we were assigned for the course. Chapter four contains this beautiful reflection on the Eucharist:

“The Lord has definitively drawn this piece of matter to himself.  It does not contain just a matter-of-fact kind of gift.  No, the Lord himself is present, the Indivisible One, the risen Lord, with Flesh and Blood, with Body and Soul, with Divinity and Humanity.  The whole Christ is there.” (88, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press 2000)

Rev. _____, I do not presume to lecture you on Catholic faith or practice.  Whatever knowledge I have of your tradition is limited at best.  I do, however, feel confident to share that I believe that in a mass, where the Lord is truly and wholly present, the comments I have mentioned above were inappropriate.  That being said, I’m sure that I have made more offensive comments while presiding at a service.  And, from what I saw, you seem like a skilled leader of worship, celebrant, and preacher.  I only make the above points because your comments were incongruous with what I took to be Catholic positions regarding “separated brothers” such as myself, and because I took exception to them as a pastor.

            Please forgive me if my comments here lack humility or charity; I have asked the Lord for forgiveness already, for my pride, inattention, and malicious thoughts both during the mass and after.  I am not proud of my initial reaction to your comments.  I hope that the issues I am bringing to your attention only amount to a slip of the tongue or momentary forgetfulness.  I further hope that this letter will be received in the spirit that is intended: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17)  As a Christian and a fellow shepherd in the Lord’s fields, I felt duty-bound to make my feelings known to you.  I thank you for your service in the Church, for your faithful following of Christ’s call, and for the time and attention given to my grievances.  May God bless you and your ministry at St. _______.

Grace and Peace,

Rev. Mack
Pastor
West ____ United Methodist Church

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