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Conversing with the Dead: On the Connection Between Tradition & Change

Jaroslav Pelikan, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Jaroslav Pelikan, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

G.K. Chesterton once called tradition “the democracy of the dead.”  Another Christian intellectual, C.S. Lewis, encouraged his readers to avoid “chronological snobbery,” that is, the belief that our age is better simply because it is after a previous age.

What does it look to acknowledge that traditions develop and change without simply turning into a blind iconoclast?  We find some help in a wonderful little book by the late Yale historian of doctrine Jaroslav Pelikan, fittingly titled The Vindication of Tradition.  He suggests avoiding both “relativism” and “constructionism” in viewing the development of a given tradition:

There is a kind of historical relativism that will emphasize only the variety of opinions and the irresistibility of change over the years, but will ignore the continuity. There is also a kind of strict constructionism that proceeds as though development were not real and were only the application of an unchanging and unchangeable authority to outward change. The American republic, the Jewish community, and the Christian church have all had advocates of both these interpretations, and they still do. But their accumulated wisdom has taught them to recognize – and the critical-historical study of their traditions has compelled them to acknowledge – that development is real but that it goes on within the limits of identity, which the tradition defines and continues to redefine.  Like any growth, development may be healthy or it may be malignant; discerning the difference between those two kinds of growth requires constant research  into the pathology of traditions. But it is healthy development that keeps a tradition both out of the cancer ward and out of the museum. (59-60)

To those who think that tradition and development are opposites, and completely unrelated, note Pelikan’s observation:

A “leap of progress” is not a standing broad jump through where we have been to where we go next. The growth of insight – in science, in the arts, in philosophy and theology – has not come through progressively soughing off more and more of tradition, as though insight would be purest and deepest when it has finally freed itself of the dead past. It simply has not worked that way in the history of the tradition, and it does not work they way now. By including the dead in the circle of discourse, we enrich the quality of the conversation. (81)

In other words, development occurs best within a tradition, in conversation with those who’ve gone before.  This epistemological humility is akin to Sir Isaac Newton’s insight that if we can see a little further than those who have come before, it is only because we “stand on the shoulders of giants.”

There is a great deal of theologizing that falls into the above categories – a complete sloughing off of tradition (which is a bit like cutting one’s anchor in a violent storm), or an ossifying of tradition (as if we should use ether instead of modern anesthesia because ‘that’s how grandma did it’).  These are both dead ends.  Instead, healthy development happens in traditions that keep distinctive identities and include the dead in the conversation even while seeking new expressions and avenues.  As Pelikan put it elsewhere, tradition is “the living faith of the dead” while traditionalism is the “dead faith of the living.”

Where do you see the vibrant use of Christian today? How do we discern healthy development from unhealthy?  When does tradition become traditionalism? Leave a comment below!

 

 

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Will the Real C.S. Lewis Please Stand Up? (re: that fake quote)

screwtape-fake

A very popular quote – but it’s not from Lewis!

[Author’s note: the fake Lewis quote about politics is making the rounds once again following the inauguration.  It was originally passed around in the Fall of 2016, but I suspect it will pop up every now and again.  Thanks for landing here, and for sharing these reflections. I still believe the quote below, actually from Lewis, is more profound than the fake one that has been popularized.]

The quote to the right has been making the rounds on social media lately, purportedly from C.S. Lewis’ classic Screwtape Letters.  This is Lewis’ imaginative account of a senior demon (Screwtape) training up a younger tempter (Wormwood).  While the quotation in question sounds very much like the real thing, it is in fact not from C.S. Lewis.  It is what Mickey Efird, a retired professor from Duke Divinity School, would call “pious fiction.” I am not sure of the origin, but I would imagine it was made as an homage to Lewis, though with perhaps not enough clarification that it was essentially fan fiction.  I’m not sure if the author intended this connection, but it reminds me of a line from Eliot’s “Choruses from The Rock,”

They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.

Lewis did, however, conclude chapter 23 of The Screwtape Letters with this reflection on politics that says much to our contemporary situation:

About the general connection between Christianity and politics, our position is more delicate. Certainly we do not want men to allow their Christianity to flow over into their political life, for the establishment of anything like a really just society would be a major disaster. On the other hand we do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianity as a means; preferably, of course, as a means to their own advancement, but, failing that, as a means to anything—even to social justice. The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice as a thing which the Enemy demands, and then work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice. For the Enemy will not be used as a convenience. Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop. Fortunately it is quite easy to coax humans round this little corner. Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that “only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilisations”. You see the little rift ? “Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.” That’s the game,
Your affectionate uncle
SCREWTAPE 

To my mind, the real Screwtape quote is even more relevant today than the fictive pericope.  Certainly there is a word we need to hear from the latter about focusing on the drama and immorality of others instead of trying to increase in virtue ourselves.  The real Lewis, however, offers a subtler and more important point on the dangers of manipulating faith for our own personal and ideological ends.  Many, if not most, forms of popular Christianity (read: Protestantism) are proffered either a) as a means of personal advancement or b) as a means of societal advancement.  Both fit demonic desires. Screwtape tells Wormwood they want their victims to “treat Christianity as a means,” preferably to selfish ends but also to more noble ends if necessary.

This is a subtle but crucial point – a “little rift” as Screwtape calls it.  Christianity turned into a means is thus embraced not because it is true, not because, say, Jesus really is the Messiah of Israel and the world’s true Lord (N.T. Wright’s lovely formulation), but because Christian faith gets you from point A to point B.  Even if point B is something desirable like “social justice,” we (Screwtape’s victims) have successfully reduced Christianity from an end to a means, from the truth on which the world turns to just another way of achieving some desired outcome.

screwtape-quote

St. Augustine noted long ago, there are things that can be used and things that can be enjoyed.  Only God can be truly enjoyed, for all other things are to be used or enjoyed only in reference to God.  The temptation to make faith a means to anything else is to attempt to use God rather than enjoy God.  This makes the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob into little more than a glorified genie.

Much like fictive quotes associated with John Wesley, the real Clive Staples is better than the invented.  There is a reason he is still influential decade after his death.  Few have put so eloquently or so readably what is at stake in Christian believing and Christian living (which, in his brilliance, he did not divide).  So perhaps we’d be better off if we made this last quote famous, since it cuts to the heart of all our idolatries.  What better way to honor a teacher and writer whose legacy is the simple but radical project he named “mere” Christianity?

What are you other favorite quotes from Lewis?  How else do you see the temptation today to turn Christianity into a means rather than an end? Leave a comment below – and don’t forget to subscribe!

Source: Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics, p. 253.

P.S. The first Methodist to say that social justice is a core aspect of the gospel because they’ve conflated it with social holiness loses points.

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Centrifugal Sin & Church Unity

Basic-ChristianityHuman beings were made for each other.

“It is not good for man to be alone” from Genesis is not first an indication of the need for romantic love, but a basic teaching about the nature of human beings: we were made for each other.  Like many other aspects of human life, this is distorted by sin; we are made for one another, but sin urges us a) towards unhealthy relationships (to adultery and lust, to using people as objects rather than treating them as sisters and brothers) and b) to dissolve relationships and attempt to live without others.  Sin, in a well-worn sermon illustration, distorts both our vertical (with God) and our horizontal (with others) relationships.

John Stott, in his classic little work Basic Christianity, observes:

The tendency of sin is centrifugal. It pulls us out of harmony with our neighbors. It estranges us not only from our maker but from our fellow-creatures too. We all know from experience how a community, whether a college, a hospital, a factory or an office, can become a hotbed of jealousy and animosity. We find it very difficult to ‘dwell together in unity’.  But God’s plan is to reconcile us to each other as well as to himself. So he does not save independent, unconnected individuals in isolation from one another, he is calling out a people for his own possession. (102)

Another evangelical Brit, John Wesley considered “social holiness” an essential of Christian faith.  This is not, how it is often misunderstood, about social action – he certainly emphasized that, but called it something else – but about pursuing full sanctification in accountable small groups.  The early Methodists knew that disciples grew best not as single potted plants, but as part of a well-tended garden.

To put it simply:

The Spirit draws us together.

Sin drives us apart.

Take a look around at the church and at our world.  Which one is winning?

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What the #UMC Episcopacy Should Look Like

13th century Bishop's crozier, representing the Annunciation. Public domain courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

13th century Bishop’s crozier, representing the Annunciation. Public domain courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

There has been a great deal chatter recently about episcopal elections in the UMC.  As usually happens, there has been a mix of joy and tears, of relief and weeping (and gnashing of teeth).  But regardless of whether you are celebrating or grieving the newest crop of bishops, there is an ancient and apostolic standard for bishops and their relationship to the rest of the church.  Consider the following nuggets culled from Ignatius, who was the bishop of Antioch less than a century after Christ.  Ignatius, in a letter to the Magnesians, offers wisdom to the church through the ages in the following guidance:

1) Follow the lead of the bishop
It is fitting, then, not only to be called Christians, but to be so in reality: as some indeed give one the title of bishop, but do all things without him. Now such persons seem to me to be not possessed of a good conscience, seeing they are not steadfastly gathered together according to the commandment.

2) Bishops and presbyters (elders/priests) should be united, and thus can they be trusted because there is one prayer/mind/hope/love/joy/etc.

As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the apostles, so neither do ye anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavor that anything appear reasonable and proper to yourselves apart; but being come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and in joy undefiled. There is one Jesus Christ, than whom nothing is more excellent. Do ye therefore all run together as into one temple of God, as to one altar, as to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from one Father, and is with and has gone to one.

3) Doctrine unites God’s people, along with the bishops, presbyters, and deacons, to Christ and the apostles
Study, therefore, to be established in the doctrines of the Lord and the apostles, that so all things, whatsoever ye do, may prosper both in the flesh and spirit; in faith and love; in the Son, and in the Father, and in the Spirit; in the beginning and in the end; with your most admirable bishop, and the well-compacted spiritual crown of your presbytery, and the deacons who are according to God. Be ye subject to the bishop, and to one another, as Jesus Christ to the Father, according to the flesh, and the apostles to Christ, and to the Father, and to the Spirit; that so there may be a union both fleshly and spiritual.
The office of Bishop, therefore, is not merely earthly and bureaucratic, but spiritual and apostolic.  Historically, the episcopacy has been the locus of unity in the church, both because of the apostolic role in ordaining and overseeing (episkopos means ‘overseer’) other clergy, and because of the teaching office that is concomitant with that calling.  It is supposed to go something like this:
  • The bishop is united to Christ and the apostles, and with other bishops
  • The presbyters and deacons are united to the bishop
  • The whole church, led and equipped by the three-fold ministerial office, is united in the doctrine of Christ and the apostles, upheld by Word and sacrament, reaching out in mission, service, charity, and justice

Any distortion of this order can cause chaos within the whole. An individualist or apostate bishop, rebellious presbyters, or a separation between the pulpit and pew can cause a break (schism) in the church.

The United Methodist Church is a Protestant denomination that, in truth, would prefer to not have bishops. We consecrate bishops as part of our Anglican heritage, but our American, egalitarian, democratic, and evangelical leanings mitigate against the classic understanding of the episcopal office. Thus our bishops are little more than bureaucratic presiders, dutifully moving about chess pieces but unable to really change the game. One wonders why prominent pastors would even seek episcopal office, since a megachurch pastor or influential author often has more raw influence than the typical United Methodist bishop.

If you want to know just how despised the office of Bishop is in the UMC, consider a vote taken in 2012. In a General Conference famous for frustration, otherwise bitterly divided conservatives and progressives seemed, for once, to agree (and thus voted down) a set-apart President of the Council of Bishops to provide oversight and voice to the Executive branch of our church.  Having personally observed a very capable and gifted bishop serve as both the President of the COB and the leader of a very large Episcopal Area, I am not exaggerating when I say we should be ashamed of ourselves for continuing a practice that is a) inhumane, in that asks an individual to fill two almost impossible tasks simultaneously and b) foolish, in that it is virtually guaranteed to render whatever poor person gets talked into that role those roles ineffective.

not how any of this worksI am doubtful anyone who was elected last week will be able do much to reverse the tide toward schism; some will likely propel us faster toward that end. This is, at least in part, simply due to a flaw of our polity: bishops, by design, just can’t do very much – and, in an increasing number of cases, they aren’t willing to do the bare minimum of what their office demands.

Looking back at the 2nd century vision for church leadership bequeathed to us from Ignatius (and before him, from the Bible and the Tradition), I see very little I recognize in the UMC at present. In a very real way, the episcopal office is a holdover from our Anglican heritage whose authority is not desired by the right or the left. I truly wonder, in a split, if the evangelical and progressive branches would maintain bishops. The most progressive denominations (such as the United Church of Christ) and most conservative denominations (such as the Southern Baptist Convention) resort to congregational autonomy with little oversight. Culturally, in the midst of what Jeffrey Stout has called “the flight from authority,” hierarchy is a dirty word and bishops feel a bit like the ecclesial equivalent of posts to which one ties their horse.

I suppose I’m just sad. Not sad at the particular outcomes at Jurisdictional Conference(s), nor at the state of the church, though it is imperiled. Rather, I am struck by just how much distance there is between what the Church Mothers and Fathers called a bishop, and what United Methodists mean by that term.  And that is a deeper issue than anything that’s gone on in the last week or the last few years.

All that leaves me with a question: do we have the form of religion without the power?

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William Placher on “Critical Retrieval” in Theology

placher retrievalWhat if there were a way to call on the best resources of the past while avoiding naïveté about their faults and simplistic rejection of all that came later? Enter the task called “critical retrieval.”

In his wonderful tome The Domestication of Transcendence, the late William Placher of Wabash College describes the task this way:

To say this – or to make any other criticism of some turn modernity took – is not to propose a simple return to the premodern. We could not go back to that world if we wanted to, and we would not want to if we could. It was a world of terrible injustice and violence, and some aspects of its theology both reflected and even contributed to these horrors. Christian theologians supported oppressive social structures and all sorts of bigotry; the male bias of the tradition is only one of its most obvious faults. if contemporary theology engages in critical retrievals of insights from premodern theology, then the retrievals must indeed always be critical, keeping in mind that what we retrieve was often embedded in contexts we can no longer accept. To engage in such critical retrievals while acknowledging our debts to modernity is to synthesize something new. As already noted, I am not much interested in whether the results should be labelled postmodernism. What matters is that we find, from whatever sources, ways of speaking about God as faithfully and truthfully as we can. (2)

What might such a ‘critical retrieval’ look like in practice?

The example that comes immediately to my mind is culled from David Steinmetz’s brilliant article “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis,” one of the most famous of the late Reformation scholar’s works.  He argues, among other points, that the medieval and patristic four-fold sense of Scripture offers more accurate and fruitful exegetical possibilities than the regnant historical-critical method of the 19th-20th century:

His bombshell of an article concludes:

The medieval theory of levels of meaning in the biblical text, with all its undoubted defects, flourished because it is true, while the modern theory of a single meaning, with all its demonstrable virtues, is false. Until the historical-critical method becomes critical of its own theoretical foundations and develops a hermeneutical theory adequate to the nature of the text which it is interpreting, it will remain restricted – as it deserves to be – to the guild and the academy, where the question of truth can endlessly be deferred.

While asserting the superiority of pre-critical methods, Steinmetz neither denies the usefulness of higher criticism nor desires a simple recovery of 8th century techniques.  This is the essence of ‘critical retrieval,’ reclaiming the best of the past while staying in touch with the insights of the present.  One party at Vatican II, that great Catholic council, was getting at something similar when they encouraged ressourcement, a return to the sources (particularly of the Patristic period).  Wesleyan theology of the last 50 years has been marked by a similar retrieval of Wesley and early Methodism after fruitless detours down avenues like Boston personalism and process theology.

But this is not a longing for the past or a kind of immature nostalgia. On Placher’s reading, critical retrieval acknowledges both the virtues of the present age and the vices of past, while seeking to bring once more to the forefront of the church the greatest gifts from her bygone eras.

And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’ (Matthew 13:52, NRSV)

What are some other examples of critical retrieval? What ideas or practices ought we to retrieve today?

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Finding God Where Understanding Does Not Reach

by Drew 1 Comment

john paul 2 easterThere are times we must seek God in darkness, times when God’s goodness and love are difficult to spot. As a pastor, there is no more difficult time when I see people seek God than when they bury their child.  At times like this, understanding is in short supply. As I’ve said before, the death of children is perhaps the best argument there is for atheism.  But the occasion of this writing is a bit more personal. Today we bury my cousin Matt, who died of a rare disease at 33 years old.

This is senseless.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that God is love, I believe in the redemption of the world through Christ and in the gifts of the Spirit.  I do not grieve as one who has no hope. (1 Thess. 4:13)  But I also know that 33 year olds are not supposed to die.

I was listening to a podcast on Ancient Faith Radio the other day and came across this quote from Gregory of Nyssa, the great Cappadocian Father. Though I studied a bit of Nyssa with Professor Warren Smith at Duke, this particular quote was new to me.  In Life of Moses, Nyssa allegorizes the ascent to God through Moses’ biography.  There we find this remarkable passage, in which Moses finds God’s presence in the darkness on Sinai in Exodus 19:

[Moses] teaches, I think, by the things he did that the one who is going to associate intimately with God must go beyond all that is visible and—lifting up his own mind, as to a mountaintop, to the invisible and incomprehensible—believe that the divine is there where the understanding does not reach.

It is important to remember that Nyssa’s assessment is not an invitation to agnosticism or Unitarianism.  The end of the apophatic search is the Holy Trinity. The God one meets in the darkness, when understanding fails and night is thick, is none other than the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  For Nyssa, the image here is of spiritual growth in God.  In his Commentary on the Canticle of Canticles, he notes

Moses’ vision of God began with light; afterwards God spoke to him in a cloud. But when Moses rose higher and became more perfect, he saw God in the darkness.

Gregory of Nyssa, 11th cent. mosiac from Saint Sophia Cathedral, Kiev. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Gregory of Nyssa, 11th cent. mosaic from Saint Sophia Cathedral, Kiev. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

The spiritual beginner thus may not see God in the darkness.  This gift is the result of a spiritual ascent from the visible, to the to hazy, and onward until finally all is night.  As martyrs and monastics have found throughout history, God can be sought and found even in the most bleak circumstances, even when it appears that He has totally left the scene.

This makes me think anew of Jesus’ cry of dereliction when, borrowing language from Psalm 22 to express the mysterious agony of his existential abandonment, he prays from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46)

If we find it difficult to follow Nyssa on this point, let us at least look to Christ, who in the midst of suffering too profound for words still called out to the Father.  God was there, even if understanding was not.

Today I will gather with many who will seek God where rational thought has failed. We will bury someone who died too young, who suffered too much.  I pray we all have the courage, with Moses, to look for God even in this dark place.

I am grateful that this is the Easter season, and that, in John Paul II’s words, we are despite all things an “Easter people.”  Nothing, then, can separate us from God’s love – not the darkness of death, not the evil of a life cut short, not the insanity of diseases without cure in an age that seems so advanced.

Christ is risen, so we will gather in faith, sing alleluia, and thumb our noses at the darkness.  For Matt is with God, and God is present even here, even now, where the understanding does not reach.

Almighty God,
you judge us with infinite mercy and justice
and love everything you have made.
We rejoice in your promises of pardon, joy and peace
to all who love you.
In your mercy turn the darkness of death
into the dawn of new life,
and the sorrow of parting into the joy of heaven;
through our Saviour Jesus Christ
who died, who rose again,
and lives for evermore.
Amen.

Source for Nyssa quotes here.

Prayer from the New Zealand Prayer Book funeral liturgy, found here.

Full text of Life of Moses available here.

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A Gloomy Church is No Church

Christ is risen!barth prayer.jpg

(Christ is risen indeed!)

The church is founded on the resurrection of Christ.  In the light of this, the church – God’s people, not the buildings in which we happen the gather – cannot be gloomy.  The Easter joy is contagious and pervasive. Recently my congregation sang the classic Brian Wren hymn that contains these lines:

“Christ is risen! Earth and heaven
Nevermore shall be the same.
Break the bread of new creation
Where the world is still in pain.
Tell its grim, demonic chorus:
Christ is risen! Get you gone!
God the First and Last is with us,
Sing Hosanna, everyone!”

Pain is not absent after Easter, but it is also not finally victorious.  We can “tell its grim, demonic chorus” – with a shout of alleluia! – that Christ is risen, and nothing else can ever be the same.

In his wonderful little book on the Lord’s Prayer, Karl Barth reflects that in the death and resurrection of Christ, the kingdom has already been accomplished:

“In Jesus Christ the world has reached its end and its purpose. Therefore, the last day, the judgment, the resurrection of the dead, all this is already fulfilled in him. It is not only an event to be awaited, it is behind us. We must understand that in him it is also a past event. When the church speaks of Jesus Christ, when it proclaims his word, when it believes in the gospel, when it goes out to the pagans to make known the gospel, when it prays to God, remembers Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost. Those are not ordinary historical events to which we would give a mere religious significance (telling ourselves: that is all very well, but indeed it means nothing). No! They are not nothing. They are all that has happened and is behind us. We proclaim the word made flesh, and we announce the kingdom of God which has come. When it is not jubilant, when it is not sure of its significance, the church cannot be insistent and is not insistent. A sad and gloomy church is not the church! For the church is built upon him who has been made flesh, upon him who has come to say the last word (not the next to last). This last word has already been uttered. We live upon this event. There is nothing more in it to be changed. We cannot turn back time, whose beginning is Christmas and Easter.”

There is much anxiety about Christianity in the West.  Fear and despair abound among laity and church leaders alike.  It is easy to understand how gloom, like a slow-acting poison, might seep in.

But let us remember, with Barth, that in Christ, all has been accomplished.  Let us with joy recall that at Pentecost the Spirit gave birth to the church, and we have been promised that “the gates of hell” will not prevail against her. (Matt. 16:18)  We thus greet gloom and doom with the fierce smile of a competitor who knows the game is rigged in our favor.

Christ is risen! Earth and heaven nevermore shall be the same!

Let us show it in our words and actions, in our attitudes, in our boldness and daring to be the church, to claim our story, to be true to Christ and thus filled with the Spirit whose abiding fruit is joy unmixed with gloom.

 

Source: Karl Barth, Prayer: 50th Anniversary Edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 37.

 

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The Center of the Christian Faith

by Drew 6 Comments
Christ Pantocrator, from Mt. Sinai. One of the few icons to survive from the before the iconoclastic controversies. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Christ Pantocrator, from Mt. Sinai. One of the few icons to survive from before the iconoclastic controversies. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

What is the center of the Christian message?

That’s the question that Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, one of the leading Orthodox voices in the West, was asked a few years ago by Christianity Today.  His response?

I would answer, “I believe in a God who loves humankind so intensely, so totally, that he chose himself to become human. Therefore, I believe in Jesus Christ as fully and truly God, but also totally and unreservedly one of us, fully human.” And I would say to you, “The love of God is so great that Christ died for us on the cross. But love is stronger than death, and so the death of Jesus was followed by his resurrection. I am a Christian because I believe in the great love of God that led him to become incarnate, to die, and to rise again.” That’s my faith. All of this is made immediate to us through the continuing action of the Holy Spirit.

NT Wright, professor at St. Andrews and former Bishop of Durham, relates a story of a cabbie in London whose simple statement of faith made it into his Easter homily: “If Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, the rest is just rock n’ roll.”

The resurrection is the center, the hub of the wheel, so to speak.  Everything else follows from this point; it is the vindication of Christ’s incarnation, faithful life, and horrific death.  If Christ is still in the tomb, there is no Trinity, and the church has nothing to proclaim.  St. Paul does not mince words when he reminds us that if Christ is not risen, we are of all people to be pitied.

What do you think the center of the Christian faith is?

If you had asked me a few years ago what all Christians agree on, I would have said the two basic Christian doctrines: Trinity and Incarnation.  God is three persons and one essence; the second person of the trinity took on flesh and was born of Mary.  This is, I believed, a simple foundation for a faith with a variety of expressions.

But that was before I talked to a lot of different Methodists and other mainliners.  For the love of the Holy Trinity (which is who I mean when I speak or write of God), we have Presbyterian pastors who are openly atheist! (And before you ask, I’m linking here to Charisma because I’d rather they get your clicks than Patheos.)

The worst.

The worst.

I can’t speak to heresy in other tribes, but I can tell you a bit of what it looks like in my own.  The myth persists that Methodists are non-doctrinal, that we have no particular beliefs or creeds to which we assent.  How anyone who has even a passing familiarity with John Wesley’s corpus can believe or teach this, I will never understand.  He was vehement that the “Catholic Spirit” which he encouraged was not an indifference to all Christian teaching:

“For, from hence we may learn, first, that a catholic spirit is not speculative latitudinarianism. It is not an indifference to all opinions: this is the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven.”

If we agree on the center, there is a lot of room various ways of living out the faith.  But we don’t know if we actually agree on the center, because most UM (and most Protestant) arguments these days are adventures in missing the point.  The martyrs did not die defending a particular view of sexuality or a particular political ideology. They died confessing the Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

If we can agree on that center, a world of possibilities is open to us.

But if we cannot agree on something so basic as the resurrection, which is constitutive of Christian faith and practice, all of our efforts to hold together may well be a sin.

The center is Jesus, crucified and risen.  Full stop.

Everything else is rock n’ roll.

Anything less is not only un-Wesleyan, it is sub-Christian.

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C.S. Lewis Was Right: Bulverisms are Everywhere

cslewisC.S. Lewis stands up to the decades after his death with astounding endurance.

Consider a few instances where, like Chesterton before him, the British literati’s pen continues to prove startlingly contemporary well past his own lifetime:

  • Lewis asked big questions about the nature of the afterlife before Rob Bell made Calvinists’ hearts a-flutter over them.
  • The Oxford don made Christian fiction an art form, and took it to heights hitherto unmet (and CGI is just now making it possible to visualize the products of Lewis’ stunning imagination).
  • Before Rabbi Kushner popularized the theodicy question, Lewis wrote The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, both of which hold up better.

And that only scratches the surface of how insightful Clive Staples Lewis continues to be for our own age.

I suppose it is no surprise that he observed a phenomenon of public discourse in 1941 that has reached vicious heights in 2015.  He even invented a name for it in an essay by the same name collected in God in the Dock: “Bulverism.”  For Lewis, a Bulverism occurs when someone mistakes or substitutes a counter-argument for a psycho-social observation:

In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – “Oh, you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.”

Lewis goes on to claim that he sees this error everywhere:

I see Bulverism at work in every political argument. The capitalists must be bad economists because we know why they want capitalism, and equally Communists must be bad economists because we know why they want Communism. Thus, the Bulverists on both sides. In reality, of course, either the doctrines of the capitalists are false, or the doctrines of the Communists, or both; but you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning – never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology.

Note that the author goes out of his way to insist this isn’t a strategy of this or that “side” or party.  Bulverisms are found everywhere.  And aren’t they still, today? Such poor rhetoric has become the air we breathe.

An example just came across my news feed today.   A group of African bishops in the UMC released a statement that dealt with issues of global terrorism, human sexuality, and the unity of the church.  Bishop Warner Brown Jr. committed a clear Bulverism in his statement to United Methodist News Service:

San Francisco Area Bishop Warner Brown Jr., the president of the Council of Bishops, said his African colleagues were speaking out of their context.

The tempting reply – if I weren’t hoping to avoid that which I am observing – would of course be: so is Bishop Warner Brown, Jr. of the San Francisco area.  Because after all, who the hell doesn’t speak out of their context?  It’s a facile kind of observation, a victory purchased cheaply, but one that is used ad nauseum:

  • She went to an all-girls college, so you know she’s a man-hater.
  • He comes from money, so he can’t help but act like a spoiled brat.
  • She’s from the Northeast, so naturally she’s going to support Bernie Sanders.
  • He’s from the Bible Belt, ergo he’s a right-wing nut job.

As Lewis saw so well 70 years ago, Bulverisms are not only a poor excuse for an argument, but they threaten the very possibility of virtuous discourse.  The ubiquity of this error is all the more troubling because Christians are ostensibly committed to charity, patience, and honesty – any of which alone should make Bulverisms rare if not extinct among the baptized.  Should is, of course, the operative word here.

I’ll give Lewis the last say, a word of warning that is also a sad description of public conversation today:

Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs. Each side snatches it early as a weapon against the other; but between the two reason itself is discredited.

Was Lewis right about Bulverisms? Where do you see them? How do we avoid them today? Leave a comment below!

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Inconceivable! Baptism & the “Fellowship of Christ’s Suffering”

by Drew 2 Comments

inconceivableI am convinced that we take the wonder and peculiarity of the Christian story for granted.  Our ancient forebears, not weighed down with sappy sentimentality or rationalistic reductionism, knew better.  I came across the following quote by St. Cyril of Jerusalem while researching a sermon and I thought it was too good not to share.  This is from his catechetical lectures on the sacraments:

“O strange and inconceivable thing! We did not really die, we were not really buried, we were not really crucified and raised again; but our imitation was in a figure, and our salvation in reality. Christ was actually crucified, and actually buried, and truly rose again; and all these things He has freely bestowed upon us, that we, sharing His sufferings by imitation, might gain salvation in reality. O surpassing loving-kindness! Christ received nails in His undefiled hands and feet, and suffered anguish; while on me without pain or toil by the fellowship of His suffering He freely bestows salvation.”

St. Cyril contrasts the visceral reality of the cross and resurrection experienced by Christ with that which is symbolized and beautifully enacted in baptism.  What is inconceivable – if you’ll pardon the Princess Bride reference – is that all that Christ won in his conquest of death by death is ours without the torment he willingly embraced.  Through the confession of the true faith and baptism in the Triune name, we come to know “the fellowship of His suffering” and salvation is bestowed as a free gift.

Let us never lose sight of the strangeness of the gospel, and how – inconceivably – God has condescended to us in Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit for our redemption.

What does it look like to share in “the fellowship” of Christ’s suffering? How does your baptism inform your daily walk with God? Leave a comment or question below!

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