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Centrifugal Forces in the Church

A swing from the NY State Fair. Courtesy blog.syracuse.com.

A swing from the NY State Fair. Courtesy blog.syracuse.com.

“Suspense of judgment and exercise of charity were safer and seemlier for Christian [people], than hot pursuit of these controversies, wherein they that are most fervent to dispute be not always the most able to determine.”

-Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity

The church is about Jesus.  That seems obvious, but we humans are a distractible lot, easily thrown off course.  Yes, it  seems obvious that the Body of Christ is to be centered in Christ.  But in large, bureaucratic organizations, mission drift is all too real.  As a big-tent denomination, our variety of goals, agendas, and callings within the United Methodist Church is a strength (other large denominations, or even megachurches, would apply equally, here).  Taken individually, most of these are even noble and life-giving, but they can also take us off-center.  Put another way: there are many centrifugal forces at work in the church.

Wikipedia defines centrifugal force in such a way that I am reminded of the UMC at present:

Centrifugal force (from Latin centrum, meaning “center“, and fugere, meaning “to flee”) is the apparent force that draws a rotating body away from the center of rotation.

A force that draws a body away from center? Wow. We have a lot of those.  All those boards and agencies, all those programs, teams, and sub-sub-committees, each vying for attention, energy, and resources.  One veteran of a similar family feud is R.R. Reno, who draws on Anglican priest-theologian Richard Hooker for advice on weathering the storm:

“For a great Anglican figure such as Richard Hooker, the deepest law of ecclesiastical polity was preservative, and all the more so when the church was threatened by centrifugal forces that threatened ruin…he was convinced that the church communicates the grace of God as a stable and settled form of life that is visibly connected to the apostolic age. His via media was precisely the willingness to dwell in this inherited and stable form, especially when uncertainty and indecision about pressing contemporary issues predominate. For Hooker the first imperative is clear: to receive that which has been given, rather than embarking on a fantasy of constructive theological speculation and ecclesial purification that would only diminish and destabilize.”

In the midst of “centrifugal forces” that sought to destabilize and harm the Body, Hooker’s strategy was to stay close to the apostolic deposit which had been received, on his view, from Christ an the apostles. I am especially drawn to Hooker’s insight, quoted by Reno in the original section above, that the quickest to debate might be the last people you want trying to make decisions.

We all know the swing is fun.   The centrifugal force brings a rush; it’s a blast to swing out as far from center as possible and look around.  But the Body can’t maintain itself if too many of us are constantly playing so far from center that we forget what home looks like.  As Reno hints at, “when uncertainty and indecision” abound (hello GC2012!), it’s time to stay close to center, to what has been received.

After all, it’s impossible to build on an unstable foundation.  Even the friendliest centrifugal forces still need a center off of which to pivot.  What would it look like for protestant Christians, and especially for United Methodists, to dwell in the inherited forms today? What would it look like for us to get off the swing?

Source: R.R. Reno, In the Ruins of the Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos 2002).

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Ordination as Temptation

A Lutheran (Missouri Synod) ordination, courtesy Wikipedia.

A Lutheran (Missouri Synod) ordination, courtesy Wikipedia.

Reflecting on a new genre of Christian literature that began to appear in the centuries after Nicaea, Robert L. Wilken notes that saints’ lives often featured a common temptation: ordination.  Strange as it sounds, one of the recurrent allurements that threatened to take the saint away from the sanctified path was the gift of holy orders.  As Wilken, a renowned professor of church history at UVA describes it,

“Neither are these tales of kings and generals, and seldom to they depict clergy. Most of the heroes are laymen and laywomen. Indeed one of the stock temptations is ordination, an enticement the best always resist. The lives are stories of simple and unassuming men and women who love God more ardently and serve God more zealously than their neighbors and friends, the kinds of person who are present in every Christian community, indeed in every religious community.”  (Remembering the Christian Past [Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 1995,] 132, emphasis added.)

Today, many are accustomed to talking of ordination as a kind of right, a religious license for which everyone should be able to apply based purely on personal inclination.  In my own United Methodist Church, much of the conversation about ordination sounds just like this: “I feel that God wants me to be ordained, and thus the church should affirm that.”

On Wilken’s description, the lives of the saints are a useful corrective.  As they reveal, the most saintly among us are usually not the ordained, and granting ordination injudiciously may be a great harm to the holiest women and men our churches have to offer.  Not only is ordination not for everyone, it may be that ordination is not for the best of us.  After all, the apostles, whom Jesus entrusted with his own teaching and mission after his resurrection and ascension, were drawn from common occupations, not the priestly caste.  The saints knew what we have forgotten: ordination may well get in the way of God drawing us to the fullest heights of sanctity.  That, to me, sounds more like a burden than a right, more a temptation to be avoided than a resume builder or professional hoop through which to jump.

This is just one more reason why ordination, like marriage in the older Anglican rite, is ” therefore is not by any to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God.”

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Incarnation Roundtable (#ICYMI)

by Drew 0 Comments

cpost

Some young Christian thinkers have an interesting project going over at Conciliar Post.  They are hosting regular “Roundtable” posts on major points of Christian doctrine or church practice, featuring voices from a wide swath of Christian traditions.  It’s refreshing to see such effort put into substantive engagement with doctrine and church teaching.  Clickbait and fluff are the stock-in-trade of the blogosophere, and Jacob Prahlow and the team over at CP should be commended for offering something so against the grain.

I was honored to be asked to contribute a Wesleyan voice to the latest Roundtable discussion which focused, appropriately enough given the time of year, on the Incarnation.  You can read my  Wesleyan/Methodist offering, as well as Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican perspectives, here.

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Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins [Review]

by Drew 1 Comment

olkholm book

“What happens when we listen to premoderns who did not know they were doing theology and psychology at the same time?” 

What can ancient Christian ascetics teach us today? According to Dennis Okholm, an Anglican priest and professor of theology, a great deal indeed.  In his new book Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins: Learning from the Psychology of Ancient Monks, Olkholm builds a compelling case that much of the wisdom of Christian monastic discipline is quite compatible with contemporary psychological perspectives.

Olkholm proceeds by way of an exploration of the Seven Deadly Sins (originally eight “bad thoughts” in the Eastern tradition).  In most chapters, his approach is a combination of examining classic Christian teachings on a given topic (lust, greed, vainglory, gluttony, etc.), putting that into conversation with contemporary psychology, and then exploring through both lenses how to cure the soul from the particular passion in question.  This passage from the chapter on anger is representative of Olkholm’s fascinating approach throughout:

“Nonetheless, we have seen that in the case of anger management modern secular psychology has not progressed beyond the insights of these ancient Christian psychologists and that the moderns have in a few cases reversed their theories only to ‘arrive’ at the conclusions reached by ascetic theologians 1,500 years ago.” (115)

While his insights, culled from both ancient and modern sources, are quite interesting, there are a few critical points worth noting.  Olkholm uses many of the same Fathers repeatedly; in some places, it almost feels as if one is reading a treatise on Evagrius and Cassian on the Seven Deadly Sins (other common interlocutors include Benedict and Aquinas).  Thus, it would have been nice to see a bit more variety from early Christian teaching.  Additionally, there is probably a bit more contemporary psychology in Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins than one would expect from reading the front and back covers.  Moreover, other than a couple of blurbs on the back from folks with psychological credentials, it is hard to see where Olkholm’s expertise in mental illness and psychological disorders originates.  A forward from someone with such credentials would have provided a bit more confidence in the author’s psychological conclusions. (As an aside, I cannot wait to share this book with friends who have more psychotherapy training than I – which is to see any at all.)

On the whole, however, Dennis Olkholm has contributed a great deal in this new volume to our understanding of ancient Christian wisdom and how it might inform and even bolster contemporary psychological findings.  Students of spirituality, ancient Christianity, and counseling will all benefit from this work.  For preachers, I would also recommend this as a resource for a study or sermon series on the Seven Deadly Sins (it would pair quite nicely with, for instance, Will Willimon’s book Sinning Like a Christian).  The question at the top of this review, which the author asks in the introduction (p. 7), is a significant one.  I, for one, hope that others develop the important connections that Dennis Olkholm has made even further, for the benefit not just of the therapist’s couch but for the church as a whole.

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Postmodern Allergies and the Rebuilding of the Church

rr reno book

I am working my way through R.R. Reno’s brilliant work  In the Ruins of the Church.  Given the shenanigans in my own tribe at present, this is a helpful read.  It is his own attempt to understand and analyze the crises facing the Anglican Communion, and the broader Mainline, at the turn of the 21st century.  Part of the book includes a brilliant reading of the challenges facing the Church in the transition from a modern to postmodern worldview. An important piece of this story is how the humanistic focus of modernity has stayed with us, but is haunted by the fears of the postmodern conscience.  Thus,

“…we worry about about ideology and wring our hands over the inevitable cultural limitations that undermine our quest for knowledge. The bogeyman of patriarchy is everywhere; everything depends upon one’s perspective. In all this, the effect is not Emersonian ambition or Lockean confidence in reason. Pronouns are changed, symbols are manipulated, critiques are undertaken, but almost always in the spirit of a new conformity that fears imprisonment without cherishing freedom, flees from error without pursuing truth.”

To be sure, Christians have some reason to rejoice in the fall of modernity’s influence.  I’ve heard N.T. Wright suggest on multiple occasions, “The job of postmodernity is to preach the doctrine of the fall to arrogant modernity.”  In this, we can surely join hands with the postmodern project.  We ought not, however, swallow the postmodern critique whole-hog:

“Postmodern humanism may not be Promethean, but it most certainly is not Christian. In order to understand this new humanism, we need to examine its defensive posture. Two features are very much in evidence: a fear of authority and fight from truth.”

We see this played out in society as well as the Church, where the only sin is judgment and the only virtue is laissez-faire tolerance.  Any claim to moral authority or  truth is soon met by the most popular logical fallacy of the internet age, Reductio ad Hitlerum.   The modern love of freedom and truth has degenerated into the postmodern definition of freedom as the ability to live absent anyone else’s definitions of truth and without interference from any outside authorities.  For all the ink spilled in the pages of literary journals and the proud triumphalism of deconstructionist academics, it is essentially a fearful worldview which claims, at its root, that all truth claims must be rejected as acts of violence.

The Church is at the epicenter of these concerns.  “As the most powerful force shaping Western culture,” writes Reno, “Christianity becomes the very essence of the authority against which we must protect ourselves.”  In current Church controversies, from the ordination of women in the Roman Catholic Church, to the status of gay marriage in the UMC, and even reaching to basic doctrinal claims like the Trinity, we see the authority of the Church constantly undermined (even by its most senior clergy, at times).  While concerns may vary, based on the particulars of a given issue,

“…the basic logic is always the same. The authority of tradition must be overthrown, the sacred bonds of loyalty to what has been passed on must be broken, so that we can be released from the oppressive burdens of present power.”

Reno suggests that all of this leads up to a strategy of “distancing” designed to keep us as individuals insulated from the moral and spiritual demands of the Christian community.  We are tempted to separate from, rebel against, or otherwise marginalize the authority of the Church – a temptation as real in the pagan world as it is among the baptized.

In this context, Reno’s prescription is decidedly counter-cultural.  Calling on the witness of Israel’s prophets living after the devastations wrought by foreign armies and internal disputes, he suggests that Christians learn to suffer “the ruins of the Church,” dwelling amidst the rubble, embracing the discipline of affection for her overturned stones.  Distancing is easy, after all; it is the current we are all swimming in.  But God’s Church cannot be rebuilt in the postmodern world unless we learn to love what has been received, though that will be a struggle.  In such a context, Reno argues, we are called to dwell in the ruins, to live with the devastation, before we can begin re-establishing the walls.

Postmodernity has much to offer the Body of Christ in the 21st century, but, like all philosophies, it is a useful servant but a tyrannical master.  An allergy (Reno’s term) to truth and authority cannot serve as the cornerstone for a community built upon “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 1:3)  Followers of Jesus, the Word made flesh, cannot help but run into conflict with a worldview based on the fear of truth and authority when we worship one who claimed to be “the way, the truth, and the life,”  and who has been given “all authority on earth and heaven.” (John 14:6; Matthew 28:18.)

We can, however, recognize the ruins of the Church for what they are, and learn to love them.  We can lean into the conflict, contradiction, and chaos, instead of distancing ourselves from it.  After all, is that not what Jesus did with the ruined world we had wrought? He did not distance himself from us, from the ruins of creation, but came among us, embracing the devastation, and bringing the Kingdom.  And while the Church is not the Kingdom, she is the Bride of the King, and her well-being matters.

As God in Christ through the Holy Spirit has borne with the mockery we have made of both creation and the Church, perhaps we can learn a similar patience with one another, built upon the recovery of a hope in the God who loves even those who seek to make a ruin of His will.  In recovering that hope in God, we might also recover a love for the devastation that surrounds us, and thus begin to rebuild – with Divine assistance, of course – Christ’s Church.

[Source: R.R. Reno, In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity (Grand Rapids: Brazos 2002), 36-37.]

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“To This Annoyance We Are Called”: Why Dialogue is Not Dead in the Church

niceaicon

Orthodox icon of the Council of Nicea, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This weekend I am heading to New York to participate in a panel discussion as part of the Just Resolution in the Ogletree case.  I am grateful for the invitation and I’ve been doing my best to prepare.  When the panel was announced, many cried foul: “We’ve been talking for 40 years!” “Dialogue is dead!”

Both the left and the right are difficult to please with these conversations.  People associated with Love Prevails (for whom “love” apparently means crashing every gathering of 2 or more Methodists with placards and a video camera) declared that “violence” was done at the recent Connectional Table panel discussion, presumably because one person was bold enough to suggest the Book of Discipline might be correct.  Conservatives often feel set-up in these discussions, which, is claimed, often seem weighted against them – this was certainly true in the CT dialogue, which makes the resulting progressive outrage all the more confusing.  Conservative Methodists have also pre-determined that I am a progressive because I have been known to criticize the right (because, if you aren’t for us, you are against us), and thereby dismissing me before the conversation happens.  Thus, if you listen to those on the fringes, it is easy to believe that dialogue is fruitless.  But there are others who deserve a hearing.

In his dense but valuable little work Church in Crisis, Oliver O’Donovan examines the sexuality controversy in the Anglican Communion.  He notes that a major part of the crisis was a failure to do the hard work of communal discernment:

…the North American churches merely acted, in default of a thorough deliberative process of their own, under the force of strong cultural pressures, the reasons for which they never explained even to themselves, since an ill-conceived doctrine of pluralism persuaded them that thinking was an unnecessary labor. They may have suffered something worse than a bout of racism, if such a thing can be imagined; they may have suffered an implosion of their powers of practical reason, the result of long habits of irresponsibility. And since theology is nothing if not a discipline of common reasoning about God and our life together, unless they recover it, their days of being churches of any kind are numbered.” (53)

Theology is not some academic pursuit that is or should be confined to cloistered students in seminary, but the name given to conversation with and through the Church.  While it is easy to lose patience with what O’Donovan called the  “discipline of common reasoning about God and our life together,” to shun this calling to cease being the Church.  That said,  we should also be honest enough to admit that it can also lead to much consternation, especially in a worldwide communion like Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, or the United Methodism.  Differences in culture, language, theological emphases, political context, and other matters can lead to a great deal of friction in the work of Christian conversation.  But, O’Donovan notes,

“…to this annoyance we are called, as Christ warned and as generations of the faithful have since proved. The question is, what sacrifice of faith we would make if, to avoid this annoyance for ourselves and so spare the church its turmoils, we were to close down on the reading and interpretation of Holy Scripture, if we were to declare that there was nothing to discuss any more.” (81)

Of course dialogue is uncomfortable. It’s always easier to live life surrounded by those who do not challenge us (studies suggest that those around us impact our ability to reason independently).  But God’s people are not called to comfort, we are called to the communion of love and truth that is the Body of Christ.  We are called to struggle with the Spirit, trusting that God will not leave us without His voice.  Afterall, it took us centuries to get to Nicea (pictured above), and thus to define some of our core doctrines; it never has been and never will be as simple as an appeal to Scripture and/or common sense.  We are called to wrestle, and, like Jacob wrestling until morning, we may walk away limping. But we might also discover we’ve received God’s blessing in the process.  O’Donovan concludes his book with an exhortation to keep striving:

“But at the very least we cannot know whether and how much of a famine of the word there is in any disagreement until we submit it to disciplines of patient common inquiry…

There are no guarantees. There never are in the Christian life. But that is not a reason not to try. And seriously trying means being seriously patient. Anyone who thinks that resolutions can be reached in one leap without long mutual exploration, probing, challenge, and clarification has not yet understood the nature of the riddle that the ironic fairy of history has posed for us in our time.” (118-119)

Our calling as Christians is, in part, a calling to be in conversation with one another, in charity and humility.  As Paul said to the Ephesians,

“…lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. ” (Ephesians 4:1b-3)

May God continue to give us patience to live out our calling as the Body of Christ – even when it is annoying –  and may we followers of the Crucified One lay down our arms so that we can endure each other.  And this, not out of some sentimental devotion to harmony, but out of devotion to the triune God, that the Church may be one and the world may believe.

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The Funniest Thing I’ve Read Lately

Bishop Jones has described Methodism as “The Extreme Center,” but but I’m not sure this is what he meant:

 

The Methodists are sort of the in-between church – not as formal as Episcopalians, yet not as rollicking as Baptists.  “Methodists are frustrated Baptists who’d like to be Episcopalians,” said Lucy Mattie Trigg.  That is: they’d like to whoop and holler, but they are  not deaf to the clarion call of upward mobility.

-From Being Dead is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies’ Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral

 

Don’t make fun of me, this was read to me by my mother, who (as an ex-cemeterian) was given this as a gift.  Hysterical.  It hits a little close to home, too.  At my seminary, there were a good number of Methodists who ended up Episcopalian (and a good number of Episcopalians who could out-Rome all but the most ardent Catholics).

On another note, I really enjoyed Annual Conference this week.  Bishop Palmer is an astounding preacher.

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