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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

For the President-Elect: A Hallelujah

They say there was a secret chord
That Leonard played, and it pleased the Lord,
But you don't really care for music, do you?
Well, now that your election's won,
You can play your games and have your fun,
While all the righteous sing their hallelujah.

You saw her standing in the waves,
A beckoning torch for broken slaves,
You saw her, and you knew she saw right through you.
So you tied the Lady to a chair,
You pared her nails and you shaved her hair,
And from her lips you drew your hallelujah.

We've been here many times before,
We've borne the burden of this war,
We've seen tyrants fall long, long before we knew you.
So build your wall and rear your tower,
But freedom's not a Ring of Power,
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah.

Well, maybe there's a God above,
But all you've ever learned from love
Is how to grab whatever looks good to you.
But it is a cry that you hear at night,
It's the people who've seen the Lady's light,
It's the huddled masses singing Hallelujah.

You'll do your worst, and it won't be much,
You can't feel, so you'll try to touch,
I didn't come to flatter or to fool you.
But even if it all goes wrong,
We'll stand before the Lord of song
With nothing on our tongues but Hallelujah.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Reformation Day post--a year and a day late (or 364 days early)

The following is an article that I wrote for Christianity Today online last year, which they decided not to publish. So I'm releasing it this year as a blog post. I didn't get it out yesterday, but that's probably appropriate, since it's an argument for All Saints' over "Reformation Day." This article was probably my last attempt to speak as an evangelical Protestant to evangelical Protestants. I will always consider myself an evangelical, but having made the decision to "swim the Tiber" I would not now use the word "we" in quite the same way that I do here.

Also, this is the longer version--I cut out some of the detail before submitting it to CT.




When my wife began graduate coursework at Duke University in the fall of 2000, she decided to take a seminar on Martin Luther (her primary field is American church history). When informed of this decision, her mother replied: “Good idea--that’s when we all started.”

 The celebration of October 31 (traditionally All Saints’ Eve) as Reformation Day by many Protestants reflects this intuition that in some way the Reformation was the beginning of “our” identity. But who are “we”? Protestants are an immensely diverse tradition, or broad family of traditions. What do the Pentecostal evangelist T. D. Jakes, the Reformed Baptist pastor John Piper, and the liberal Episcopalian retired bishop John Shelby Spong really have in common? Does their common heritage in something that could be called “Protestantism” really mean more than what any of them might share with, for instance, Catholic and Orthodox Christians?

 Indeed, the vast majority of Protestants share far more common ground theologically with Catholics and Orthodox than they do with the “non-theistic” Spong or the non-Trinitarian Jakes. Yet both the liberal Protestantism of which Spong is an extreme example, and the unorthodox version of Pentecostalism of which Jakes is a representative, appeal to the Reformation as a model. In 1998, Spong issued a “Call for a New Reformation,” complete with twelve theses of his own. By Spong’s own admission, these theses are far more radical than those of the Reformers. But Spong’s choice to link himself with Luther (his 2001 autobiography was titled Here I Stand) wasn’t just clever marketing. It reflected a long history of more radical figures claiming to “complete” Luther’s work and carry his own principles farther than Luther dared to do himself. 

From the very first, Luther’s writings struck a chord with people who had very different theological preoccupations than Luther himself. Indeed, since Luther’s theology was continually evolving, such “misunderstandings” were to be expected (and may not always have been misunderstandings at all). For many of his early admirers, Luther was a more radical version of the great humanist scholar Erasmus--a hero of intellectual freedom and scholarship who called for a fresh look at Scripture and a focus on inner renewal instead of ritual and elaborate dogma. For educated supporters of the working-class revolutions that broke out in 1524 and 1525, Luther’s doctrine of freedom was a charter for political liberty. For Zwingli and the Swiss Reformers, Luther was a prophetic figure who could be expected to agree with the Swiss conclusions about the radical idolatry of Catholic worship and the error of the doctrine of the Real Presence. As Luther disappointed these early admirers one by one, a chasm opened between those who agreed with Luther’s developed (and developing) theology more or less in its entirety and those who did not. Those who disagreed with Luther claimed that Luther, while inspired by God to challenge the authority of the papacy, did not see the full implications of his own principles, and that his followers were too deferential to him, giving his teachings more authority than any merely human theology ought to have. Some of these critics were unsuccessful in gaining wide support from those with power and influence in European society, and were demonized as “radicals” whose doctrines would overthrow godly order and were radically incompatible with historic Christian orthodoxy. But a wide network of more moderate critics of Luther did succeed in gaining political support, particularly from the magistrates of independent city-states in southwestern Germany and Switzerland.

This “Reformed” version of Protestantism eventually would prove far more durable internationally than the strictly “Lutheran” version, becoming, in fact, the central “orthodox” tradition of Protestantism. The French refugee John Calvin created a systematic theology that drew richly on Scripture, the Church Fathers, selected medieval authorities, and the teachings of both Luther and his “Zwinglian” critics. Over the long term, Calvin’s version of Protestantism, enshrined in confessional statements such as the Westminster Confession and the Canons of Dort, would come to be seen as the central, orthodox form of Protestantism, with Lutheranism as a smaller, more ethnically limited alternative. Non-Calvinist movements, from seventeenth-century Baptists to 21st-century emergents, have fundamentally the same relationship to Calvinism that Protestantism as a whole has to Catholicism. They are “heretical” variants of the Reformed tradition, rooted in the claim that the Reformed tradition was itself insufficiently Biblical.

 As a result, there are two basic reasons to celebrate “Reformation Day.” One may believe that the Protestants were right in their basic doctrinal claims and that these claims remain the indispensable foundation for healthy Christian faith and life. Or one may see the Reformers as examples because of their willingness to question received tradition in light of Scripture. Of course, plenty of people hold to some version of both. But they always stand in tension with each other. The more firmly one is convinced that the original teachings of the Reformers are correct, the less likely one is going to be to do what the Reformers did all over again. The history of Protestantism is largely the story of people imitating the original Reformers by challenging existing tradition in light of Scripture, and eventually challenging tradition and Scripture in light of reason and experience.

 When the Baptists, most of whom were heirs of the Calvinist tradition, decided that the Anabaptists were right about infant baptism, they were explicitly rejecting a practice that was extremely important to the “magisterial reformers.” When Jacobus Arminius, around the same time, rejected unconditional predestination, he was embracing ideas more akin to those of the Jesuits than those of the classical Reformers. Luther had claimed, in his 1525 debate with Erasmus about free will, that this was the central point at issue between himself and the “papists.” Yet Arminius and the many Protestants who would eventually come to agree with him decided that on this key point, Erasmus had been right all along. And they did so, again, on the basis of an appeal to the authority of Scripture over human tradition.

Meanwhile, the religious conflicts of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries led to a powerful rationalist movement in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in which traditional Christian belief was identified with “superstition” and “priestcraft” as well as with political tyranny. The evangelical movement emerged in this context as an alternative both to “dead orthodoxy” and to rationalist heresy. From the beginning it assumed Protestant orthodoxy as its doctrinal formation, while calling for a less pugnacious orthodoxy that focused on “essentials” rather than squabbling over “minor matters.” John Wesley, in his famous sermon on the “Catholic Spirit,” called for broad tolerance of disagreements among Christians (even over such matters as whether the sacraments should be celebrated at all): “Let all these things stand by: we will talk of them, if need be, at a more convenient season, my only question at present is this, "Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart.””

In the 19th century, this kind of appeal to the heart led to a new kind of liberalism. Schleiermacher and his followers in Germany argued that true religion consisted in experience rather than in doctrine or morality. At the same time, the rise of historical criticism led to an awareness that the Bible was itself the product of history and tradition. The same principle that had led Protestants to criticize tradition in light of Scripture now led many of them to criticize parts of the Bible in light of others, or even to relativize the Bible compared to reason and experience. In the mid-20th century, Paul Tillich defined the “Protestant principle” as “the critical element in the expression of the community of faith and consequently the element of doubt in the act of faith.” Far from Luther’s confident appeal to Scripture, Tillich’s “Protestant principle” relativizes all doctrinal claims, even those of Scripture and the ancient Creeds. To hold to anything unconditionally was, for Tillich, a form of idolatry. Spong’s “Call for a New Reformation” is a more radical and more simplistic version of Tillich’s theology.

 Evangelicals define themselves by the rejection of this “modernist” trajectory in Protestantism and by the reaffirmation of the authority of Scripture. Yet the “Protestant principle” is at work in evangelicalism as well, even if in a more moderate form. Ever since the revivals of the 18th century, evangelicalism has given rise to movement after movement claiming to restore New Testament Christianity or to bring about a more immediate relationship with God. Some of these movements, like Mormonism, denied basic beliefs of historic Christianity and are often seen as not really Christian at all, yet their roots in evangelical Protestantism are undeniable.

Within evangelical theology in recent decades, numerous challenges to traditional Protestant belief have arisen. The “New Perspective on Paul,” championed by N. T. Wright among others, challenges the key exegetical claims on which the soteriology of the Reformation was built. A more radical challenge is the “open theism” championed by a number of leading Arminian evangelical theologians such as Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, and Greg Boyd. In his 2001 email exchange with Chris Hall in the pages of CT, Sanders responded to Hall’s appeal to tradition by invoking the Reformation:
You sound just like John Eck, the Catholic inquisitor of Luther, who claimed it unimaginable that so many theologians could have been wrong on so central a teaching as salvation. I would have thought that someone such as yourself, teaching at a Baptist college, would have more empathy for those who challenge certain traditions. Lutherans, Reformed, and Catholics killed Anabaptists for espousing beliefs that most evangelicals today take for granted. Clearly, Protestants believe that traditions sometimes need changing.
To be sure, Sanders affirms certain important elements of the tradition: “the ecumenical creeds, the main teachings of the Reformation, the authority of Scripture, and the importance of prayer and community.” But on the specific, very important philosophical point where he challenges tradition, the importance of the Reformation is not what Luther and Calvin actually believed about God’s omniscience but that they were willing to challenge previous theology on the basis of Scripture. This provides, for many Protestants within as well as outside the evangelical community, a warrant for further challenges to traditional ideas the Reformers did accept, while claiming loyalty to their heritage.

Alister McGrath’s readable and thought-provoking Christianity’s Dangerous Idea fleshes out this understanding of the Reformation more systematically. McGrath argues that there is no one essence of Protestantism except the ongoing willingness to challenge tradition in light of Scripture. The variety and disunity of Protestantism are, for McGrath, not its shame but its glory. The hero of his telling of the story is Pentecostalism, a dynamic movement that sweeps aside dogmas and institutions through a direct appeal to the witness of the Spirit in the lives of believers. But the same language of freedom and diversity that McGrath uses to praise Protestantism could also be used to praise liberalism. McGrath admits (p. 400) that “revisionist approaches” such as those of Spong “are part of the inevitable free market of ideas that shape Protestant identity.” “Protestantism,” says McGrath, “is not a static entity, but a living entity whose identity mutates over time. But that mutation leads to a variety of outcomes--among which some flourish and others wither.” “Revisionist” versions of Protestantism, he argues, “have not attained the wide acceptance found by other new developments, such as Pentecostalism.” The implication seems to be that “wide acceptance” is evidence of spiritual value, because it shows that a particular tradition is meeting people’s spiritual needs. The numerical decline of mainline churches would then be (as many conservative Christians have recently argued) evidence for the spiritual bankruptcy of liberalism. McGrath gives no substantive reasons for considering Pentecostalism truer than liberalism--or for that matter than traditional confessional Protestantism, which isn’t doing very well numerically either.

 An alternative picture of the history of Protestantism was offered by Presbyterian pastor Tim Keller in a recent roundtable discussion with John Piper and D. A. Carson. Keller spoke for all three by saying that the Reformation “essentially got the Bible right.” He argued that later centuries of Protestantism--the Puritans, the revivalists, and the Princeton theologians--added to this Reformation heritage without contradicting it. But this linear account of Protestantism dismisses the many branches off the Calvinist tree as irrelevant. Furthermore, Keller treats revivalism as one monolithic thing, a kind of middle term between Puritanism and the Princeton theology. But many revivalists rejected Calvinism--revivalism was in fact a major force in 19th-century America’s move away from Calvinism. And accordingly, the stalwart Calvinists of the “Old Princeton” school were very dubious about revivalism. Keller makes the story of Protestantism far too linear.
John Piper, in the same discussion, offered a more strongly worded version of the same basic position. According to Piper, the Reformation did not happen just because the Reformers read the Bible differently--it happened because they “read their Bibles,” which seems to imply that previous Christians didn’t. Piper cites the Renaissance “return to the sources” as the cultural factor that led to this new look at Scripture. (This in spite of the fact that the greatest Renaissance Biblical scholar, Erasmus, was unconvinced by the key doctrinal claims of the Reformers and accused Luther of inventing a new kind of scholastic theology, complicating the simple message of Scripture with his abstract “paradoxes.”) But if Piper is seriously claiming that people didn’t read the Bible, or didn’t do so seriously, before the Reformation, he is clearly wrong. A mountain of scholarship in recent decades has demonstrated just how deep and rich medieval engagement with Scripture was, and how many continuities (as well as deep differences) there are between the Reformation and the previous tradition of Biblical interpretation. (My grad-school mentor David Steinmetz’ two volumes Luther in Context and Calvin in Context flesh this out with regard to the two most famous theologians of the Reformation, as well as many of their contemporaries.) The difference in the Reformation was precisely not that people read the Bible for the first time, but indeed that they read it in a different way, informed by Renaissance literary theory among many other factors. And, as the history of Protestantism shows, Christians did not stop looking at the Bible in new ways in the sixteenth century. To set the Reformation apart from previous tradition as the first time when people really started taking the Bible seriously is to invite other Christians to ask, “what if we haven’t taken it seriously yet?”

 An alternative is to go back behind the Reformation and seek a broader and deeper basis for orthodoxy. This approach has been championed particularly strongly by the Methodist theologian Tom Oden, and was set forth succinctly in 2011 by the evangelical Anglican priest Gerald McDermott. In a First Things article, “Evangelicals Divided,” he argued that the movement is splitting into two distinct camps, the “Meliorists” and the “Traditionists”: “The former think we must improve and sometimes change substantially the tradition of historic orthodoxy. The latter think that while we might sometimes need to adjust our approaches to the tradition, generally we ought to learn from it rather than change it.” McDermott noted that this division largely (but not entirely) coincides with the older division between Calvinists and Arminians. The leading “meliorists” such as Roger Olson are confidently Arminian. Many of the staunchest “Traditionists” are Reformed, though there are certainly Arminians in the Traditionist camp as well. McDermott’s definition of the two camps has its problems. For instance, he admits that Olson, one of his prime examples of a “Meliorist,” “accepts the Great Tradition (the consensus on “mere Christianity” among the Fathers, the medieval theologians, and the Reformers which for most conservatives is authoritative) as a “Third Testament,” which can be ignored “only with fear and trembling,” and warns that “whatever overthrows the Great Tradition is likely to be heretical.”” That is extremely strong language--most conservative evangelicals would probably find it too strong, rather than too weak, in its affirmation of tradition. Yet apparently, for McDermott it’s not enough, because Olson’s affirmation of the historical, contextual nature of tradition (and even of Scripture) inevitably gives cover to more radical views such as open theism or the affirmation of gay unions.

 The bigger problem with McDermott’s formulation, though, is that he includes the Reformers in the “Great Tradition,” as if they fit seamlessly with the pre-Reformation tradition. If that had been true, there would have been no schism in the sixteenth century. In this McDermott follows Tom Oden, author of the phrase “the Great Tradition” and one of the most significant figures in getting Protestants to take the early Church more seriously. Oden’s Reformation Reader attempts, unconvincingly (at least to me), to show that the Protestant Reformers’ view of justification was the same as that of the early Church. Alister McGrath is more accurate, in his Iustitia Dei, when he acknowledges that imputation was a novel idea in the sixteenth century, and that in fact Augustine explicitly identified justification and sanctification. In response to letters pointing out the problems with arguing for “Traditionism” while upholding the Reformation, McDermott pointed to the body of scholarship showing continuities between the Reformation and the Middle Ages, and concluded, “Luther was a Traditionist.” This is hardly accurate. David Steinmetz’ essay, “Luther and Calvin on Church and Tradition,” shows that Luther was quite willing to dismiss any Council or other element of Church tradition that contradicted his own theology. That is hardly McDermott’s ‘Traditionism.” Of course Luther upheld those aspects of the previous tradition with which he agreed. Of course he studied the previous tradition and was informed by it. The “meliorists” McDermott is attacking do the same. But only a few of them are nearly as cavalier toward previous tradition as Luther was.

 To say that the Reformation was correct is to say that radical revisions of the Tradition are sometimes necessary. This is the fundamental problem with both the confessional and the neo-patristic versions of conservative Protestantism. But McDermott rightly identifies the fatal flaw with what he calls “meliorism.” To hold up the Reformation as a model for endless criticism of the previous tradition leaves us helpless against the spirit of the age. Evangelical “meliorism” can indeed easily turn into liberalism, as similar movements in evangelicalism have done in the past. The nervousness about slippery slopes that has led to pious and learned people like John Sanders and Tom Oord losing their jobs at evangelical institutions is not without basis. But it is also a disease that will kill evangelicalism spiritually if it is not cured.

 It is clear, historically, that the Reformation was very much a culturally limited, biased interpretation of the Christian faith. It was not a pristine recovery of New Testament Christianity, as Piper and Carson seem to suggest. Nor was it a new divine revelation in its own right, obviously. Therefore, Reformation formulas must be regarded as open to further critique and even possible rejection. This is not the case for the core affirmations of the early Church enshrined in the Creeds and historically shared by Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox. In short, the Creeds should be non-negotiable, while the confessions of the sixteenth century should not be.

 Perhaps, then, instead of celebrating “Reformation Day,” evangelicals should learn once more to celebrate “All Saints Day.” The relationship between the two holidays is emblematic of the relationship between Protestantism and the older and broader Christian tradition it critiqued. Luther chose All Saints Eve to post a bold criticism of practices rooted in the doctrine of the communion of saints, but which had become radically corrupted. This corruption went deeper than the obvious financial scandal of selling pardons for money. It was, as Luther saw, rooted in a flawed way of thinking about our relationship with God, as if it was our job to wheedle salvation out of God rather than throwing ourselves on his mercy. But by replacing All Saints with Reformation Day, by placing the Reformers alongside or even above the Fathers as normative figures for Christian theology, we have cut ourselves off from the broader streams of Christianity and have committed ourselves to a position riddled with contradictions.

By restoring All Saints’ Day, we do not need to turn our backs on the spiritual insights of the Reformation. Protestantism has its saints too. When I first visited Oxford in 2003, I paid homage to the “Martyrs’ Memorial” that commemorates the burning of three Protestant bishops by Queen Mary’s Catholic government in 1556. But I did this in a Catholic way, by crossing myself and kissing the spot. Only by gestures like this can I personally do justice to my conflicted feelings about the heritage of the Reformation. We can and should celebrate the principles of free grace, the priesthood of all believers, and the importance of free access to the Scriptures for all Christians. We should sing the great songs of the evangelical tradition, and honor the many men and women throughout the past 500 years who have devoted their lives to the Gospel within Protestant communities. But we should never forget that “we” did not, in fact, begin in the sixteenth century. We began in the first century. And if we want to claim all 2000 years of Christian history as our own, we must exercise proper humility about the role the Reformations of the sixteenth century play in that long story. We should stop exalting the Reformation as an unchallenged norm either in its substantive teachings or in its methodology of critiquing previous tradition. We should offer the great spiritual riches of our evangelical heritage to our brothers and sisters in other Christian traditions, and receive spiritual riches from them in return. We should embrace generosity and freedom of spirit, not because we do not care about doctrine, but because we have rediscovered a firmer and broader basis for doctrine. Only then will evangelicalism be able to flourish as the renewal movement within the universal Church that God’s providence has prepared it to be. Only then, in Wesley’s phrase, will we have a truly “Catholic Spirit.”


Monday, October 31, 2016

And he that will reach it, about must, and about must go

As anyone who knows me is aware, I've been engaged for more than twenty years now in discerning whether or not I should enter full communion with Rome (i.e., "become Catholic"). This journey began--well, it probably began with my parents and grandparents teaching me the Christian faith in infancy. Discovering G. K. Chesterton as a teenager made me begin to think of Catholicism as a live possibility. Phil Kenneson, one of my professors at Milligan College, told me that "Rome was not a bad place to start" (by which he did not mean to convert to Catholicism, but to learn from "Rome" how to take church and tradition more seriously). But I first explicitly declared a desire to become Catholic in my first semester as a doctoral student at Duke University, in the fall of 1995. I had gone to Duke to study the Protestant Reformation, partly in hope of fending off my nascent "Romeward" leanings awakened by Chesterton and other Catholic authors I had read in my late teens. Also, Nathan Hatch's The Democratization of American Christianity had taught me that the hyper-individualistic Protestantism I'd grown up with and around wasn't necessarily historic Reformational Protestantism. 

My desire to become Catholic in the fall of 1995 was perhaps premature. After all, I had barely started studying the Reformation, which was supposed to help me figure out what I thought about Protestantism. But all it took, really, was a close encounter with Catholics who really knew and loved their faith for me to fall in love with Catholicism. Or rather, I'd already fallen in love with Catholicism as portrayed in Chesterton, and meeting Tim Gray, John Sauer, and other devout Catholics at Duke made me leap to believe that what I already loved in theory could be true in reality. 

But I was young and naive and confused, deeply self-doubting and indecisive. Matt Levering, whom I met in the spring of 1996, warned me that "it will be a process of years." I'm not sure it needed to be--not so many years, anyway. But I'm temperamentally prone to believe that anything I want to be true can't be true. And there were plenty of people in my life to tell me that this particular thing wasn't true.

By 1998 I was convinced that I could never be a Protestant in any confessional or anti-Catholic sense. The choice was between ecumenical Protestantism (either Anglicanism or Methodism) and historic pre-Reformational Christianity (Catholicism or Orthodoxy). The Episcopal Church, of course, offered the best of both worlds, particularly in its Anglo-Catholic expression, which I encountered at St. Joseph's in Durham. But I never quite believed in the Anglo-Catholic claim that Anglicanism was Catholic rather than Protestant. Anglicanism has always represented for me not the repudiation of Protestantism but the hope for an ecumenical Protestantism leading to corporate reunion with both Rome and the East.

The direction of the Episcopal Church since 2003 has made that hope extremely dim. The Anglican Church in North America, which divided from the Episcopal Church over the question of gay unions, is also unlikely to seek union with either Catholicism or Orthodoxy. In the past decade or so I've looked more seriously at Methodism as an alternative. But the United Methodist Church seems also headed for schism over homosexuality. There appears to be no escape, within institutional Protestantism, from the dynamic of division.

Since​ ​2003,​ ​also,​ ​I​ ​have​ ​been​ ​married​ ​first​ ​to​ ​a​ ​Methodist​ ​deacon​ ​and​ ​then​ ​an​ ​Episcopal​ ​priest (who​ ​happens​ ​to​ ​be​ ​the​ ​same​ ​thoroughly​ ​glorious​ ​person).​ ​She​ ​does​ ​not​ ​share​ ​my​ ​belief​ ​that​ ​we ought​ ​to​ ​be​ ​in​ ​communion​ ​with​ ​Rome.​ ​She​ ​feels​ ​called​ ​to​ ​be​ ​a​ ​cranky​ ​voice​ ​for​ ​orthodoxy​ ​within mainline​ ​Protestantism.​ ​God​ ​bless​ ​her.​ ​I've​ ​tried​ ​to​ ​persuade​ ​myself​ ​that​ ​that's​ ​my​ ​calling.​ ​But​ ​I can't​ ​do​ ​it​ ​any​ ​more.
 
So I'm thrown back on my own individual conscience. This is paradoxical, because I was drawn to Catholicism as a refuge from individualism. The basic dilemma for any would-be convert to Catholicism is that in order to repudiate Luther we must become Luther. We must say, "Here I stand, I can do no other." And I have found this extremely difficult to say.

To make things yet more complicated, from 2006 to 2012 I was assistant professor of Bible and religion at Huntington University, an evangelical college in northern Indiana. I knew that if I became Catholic I would probably lose my job. I wish I had told them, at the start, that I might quite possibly become Catholic, but since at the time I had already been talking about becoming Catholic for​ ​more​ ​than​ ​ten​ ​years​ ​without​ ​doing​ ​it,​ ​giving​ ​up​ ​a​ ​job​ ​for​ ​the​ ​mere​ ​possibility​ ​that​ ​I would​ ​finally​ ​take​ ​the​ ​plunge​ ​seemed​ ​overly​ ​quixotic. When​ ​I​ ​was​ ​laid​ ​off​ ​for​ ​financial​ ​reasons​ ​in​ ​2012,​ ​I​ ​rejoiced​ ​that​ ​I​ ​could​ ​finally​ ​follow​ ​my​ ​heart.​ ​But it​ ​turned​ ​out​ ​not​ ​to​ ​be​ ​that​ ​easy.​ ​The​ ​habits​ ​of​ ​indecision​ ​I'd​ ​built​ ​up​ ​over​ ​the​ ​years​ ​had​ ​made​ ​it almost​ ​impossible​ ​for​ ​me​ ​to​ ​take​ ​the​ ​step.​ ​And​ ​in​ ​the​ ​wake​ ​of​ ​losing​ ​my​ ​job​ ​I​ ​was​ ​depressed​ ​and even​ ​more​ ​self-doubting​ ​than​ ​usual. Yet​ ​over​ ​and​ ​over​ ​again​ ​I​ ​had​ ​moments​ ​where​ ​I​ ​felt,​ ​with​ ​utter​ ​clarity,​ ​that​ ​this​ ​was​ ​what​ ​I​ ​was called​ ​to​ ​do.​ ​

In​ ​February​ ​of​ ​2014​ ​I​ ​was​ ​rereading​ ​Tolkien's​ ​​Silmarillion​,​ ​and​ ​I​ ​came​ ​across​ ​the passage​ ​where​ ​Morgoth​ ​impersonates​ ​one​ ​of​ ​the​ ​leaders​ ​of​ ​Men​ ​to​ ​tell​ ​them:​ ​“the​ ​Sea​ ​has​ ​no shore.​ ​There​ ​is​ ​no​ ​light​ ​in​ ​the​ ​West.​ ​We​ ​have​ ​followed​ ​a​ ​fool-fire​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Elves​ ​to​ ​the​ ​end​ ​of​ ​the world.”​ ​And​ ​I​ ​knew​ ​in​ ​that​ ​moment​ ​that​ ​the​ ​same​ ​voice​ ​of​ ​despair​ ​was​ ​the​ ​voice​ ​that​ ​had​ ​held​ ​me back​ ​so​ ​many​ ​times​ ​from​ ​becoming​ ​Catholic.​ ​I​ ​had​ ​known​ ​this,​ ​really,​ ​at​ ​least​ ​since​ ​2005,​ ​when​ ​I wrote​ ​a​ ​blog​ ​post​ ​called​ ​“The​ ​Ecclesiology​ ​of​ ​Limbo.”

To​ ​remain​ ​Protestant​ ​is,​ ​for​ ​me,​ ​to​ ​hold​ ​back​ ​from​ ​fully​ ​committing​ ​myself​ ​to​ ​faith​ ​in​ ​Christ.​ ​It’s hedging​ ​my​ ​bets.​ ​This​ ​of​ ​course​ ​is​ ​not​ ​true​ ​for​ ​most​ ​other​ ​Protestants.​ ​Indeed,​ ​no​ ​one​ ​should even​ ​consider​ ​becoming​ ​Catholic​ ​unless​ ​they​ ​have​ ​the​ ​same​ ​experience​ ​I​ ​have.​ ​The​ ​only​ ​reason to​ ​become​ ​Catholic​ ​is​ ​that​ ​you​ ​are​ ​convinced​ ​that​ ​this​ ​is​ ​the​ ​only​ ​way​ ​for​ ​you​ ​to​ ​follow​ ​Jesus.​ ​I am​ ​so​ ​convinced.​ ​I​ ​have​ ​been,​ ​morally,​ ​convinced​ ​of​ ​this​ ​for​ ​a​ ​very​ ​long​ ​time.

And​ ​so​ ​I​ ​am,​ ​finally,​ ​resolved.​ ​I​ ​don't​ ​know​ ​if​ ​I​ ​will​ ​be​ ​received​ ​at​ ​Easter​ ​or​ ​at​ ​some​ ​earlier​ ​point, but​ ​when​ ​the​ ​local​ ​parish​ ​RCIA​ ​leader​ ​tells​ ​me​ ​that​ ​they​ ​are​ ​ready,​ ​I​ ​am​ ​going​ ​to​ ​enter​ ​full communion​ ​with​ ​the​ ​Catholic​ ​Church.​ ​I​ ​do​ ​not​ ​want​ ​to​ ​break​ ​communion​ ​with​ ​any​ ​other Christians.​ ​I​ ​am​ ​still​ ​discerning​ ​how​ ​I​ ​can​ ​live​ ​out​ ​both​ ​my​ ​conviction​ ​that​ ​I​ ​ought​ ​to​ ​be​ ​in communion​ ​with​ ​Rome​ ​and​ ​my​ ​conviction​ ​that​ ​all​ ​baptized​ ​believers​ ​are​ ​members​ ​of​ ​the Church.​ ​I​ ​know​ ​it’s​ ​going​ ​to​ ​be​ ​hard​ ​to​ ​do​ ​this​ ​as​ ​a​ ​Catholic.​ ​But​ ​it’s​ ​impossible​ ​for​ ​me​ ​to​ ​do​ ​it​ ​as anything​ ​else.

My​ ​long​ ​and​ ​winding​ ​journey​ ​can​ ​be​ ​summed​ ​up​ ​in​ ​the​ ​words​ ​of​ ​John​ ​Donne​ ​(ironically​ ​a​ ​convert from​ ​Catholicism​ ​to​ ​Anglicanism):​ ​“On​ ​a​ ​narrow​ ​hill, Rugged​ ​and​ ​steep,​ ​Truth​ ​stands,​ ​and​ ​he​ ​that​ ​will Reach​ ​it,​ ​about​ ​must,​ ​and​ ​about​ ​must​ ​go, And​ ​what​ ​the​ ​hill’s​ ​narrowness​ ​resists,​ ​win​ ​so.” I​ ​don’t​ ​think​ ​my​ ​path​ ​had​ ​to​ ​be​ ​as​ ​long​ ​and​ ​winding​ ​as​ ​it​ ​has​ ​been.​ ​But​ ​I​ ​trust​ ​that​ ​God​ ​can​ ​use every​ ​twist​ ​and​ ​turn​ ​in​ ​the​ ​tapestry​ ​he​ ​is​ ​weaving.​ ​I​ ​entrust​ ​my​ ​past​ ​as​ ​well​ ​as​ ​my​ ​present​ ​and future​ ​to​ ​His​ ​loving​ ​and​ ​mysterious​ ​care.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Al Smith the papist demagogue: the origins of a "democratic institution"



Apparently there is something called the "Al Smith dinner," which is a "democratic institution" in danger from Donald Trump.

I find this a bit ironic, since when Al Smith actually ran for president in 1928 plenty of people thought he was a danger to democratic institutions himself. He would take the Bible out of public schools:

Indeed, his candidacy was nothing more than a papal plot to smash the public schools with a club called "violence" and, apparently, poison them with a vial of holy water:

Among the many denunciations of Smith by indignant Protestants was a treatise by the Methodist preacher Henry Clay Morrison (founder of Asbury Seminary), called "The Battle of the Ballots." (This has been recently reprinted by Asbury Seminary's "Firstfruits Press.") Morrison claimed that, in fact, opponents of Smith had not invoked his religion as a reason to oppose him, but that his supporters had falsely accused his opponents of religious prejudice, and since the pro-Smith side had brought religion into the discussion Morrison was justified in discussing it. His closing peroration gives an idea of his tone throughout:
If Al Smith should be elected in the coming battle of ballots, the 6th day of next November, I shall be forced to believe that the curse of God has come upon us, because of our spiritual apostasy and reckless lust for wealth and pleasure that has come to characterize such a large per cent of our American people. May the Holy Spirit arouse our womanhood, awaken and stir the manhood of the nation, and may God in mercy save us from a reign of Rum and Romanism.
Does the desperate rhetoric sound familiar? Try this cartoon, also produced during the 1928 campaign (though it has nothing to do with Morrison), with the caption "Religious liberty is guaranteed, but can we allow foreign reptiles to crawl all over us/"


Morrison echoes these concerns, arguing that Smith was elected governor of New York "by the vast hords [sic] of un-Americanized foreigners, who have gathered by millions, in New York City, making it a menace to the peace and welfare of this nation." Morrison accuses Smith of calling for "an open door to immigrants," under the excuse of not wishing to separate families. He argues that since pretty much everyone in "southern Europe" is related to somebody already in America, this policy would amount to completely unrestricted immigration of people "raised up under the oppression of a Romish ecclesiasticism" and thus easy prey to the machinations of Tammany Hall.

If this anti-immigration rhetoric sounds like one side of the current debate, Morrison's worries about Catholic attacks on the public school system, "one of the cornerstones of our greatness," sound like the other. Indeed, if his criticisms of Catholicism sound like contemporary right-wing attacks on Islam, they also echo the language of the "Podesta emails" revealed by Wikileaks.

The worries of the 1920s don't map exactly onto the political map of the 2010s. Yet it's remarkable how persistent the basic elements are: fear of immigration, fear of corrupt crony politicians, fear of unscrupulous demagogues, fear of "alien" religious traditions undermining America's democratic institutions.

But perhaps there is a ray of hope. After all, the corrupt puppet of Roman despotism, defeated in 1928 by Herbert Hoover, would survive to become a "democratic institution" threatened in turn by a New York demagogue. I don't want to see Donald Trump give his name to a "democratic institution" of the future, and I'm not too enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton either. But democratic institutions are, let us hope, more durable and more capable of renewal than the prophets of doom would have us fear.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The 'Am and the Yam

In my ongoing effort to read through the Bible in Hebrew, I just finished Jeremiah 5. One of the things that struck me about it this time through was the contrast between God's control over nature (v. 22) and God's people's ability to resist God (v. 23). God sets the sand as a boundary for the sea, and the waves of the sea can't pass it however much they may rage, but "this people" does manage to "turn aside and go away" from God's purposes.

In Hebrew, the word for "people" and the word for "sea" rhyme: "'am" and "yam." So the contrast comes through more sharply, at least to me (not being a Biblical scholar, I'm never sure if what I think I'm getting from the Hebrew is really what an expert, or an ancient reader, would get from it). Of course one possible theme here human beings' unique capacity to resist God through the exercise of their free will. But there's a further irony, because the passage is specifically speaking about God's people, whom God has chosen out of the nations.

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the sea is portrayed as a symbol of the forces of chaos and evil, and specifically of the "heathen" nations who do not have a covenant relationship with God and who often persecute God's people. The tossing waves here remind me of the raging heathen kings in Psalm 2.

But the bitter message of this section of Jeremiah, I think, is not just that God's people outdo the forces of nature in their capacity to defy God, but that the heathen nations are paradoxically more submissive to God than Israel is. The Babylonians have just been described (in v. 15) as a nation God is bringing against Judah. In all their heathen rage, they are doing God's will. But "this people" manages not to.

Not much, it seems, has changed. Those of us aghast at the way large segments of conservative American Christianity have sold themselves to Donald Trump should remember that this is a very old story.

And, of course, we should watch for ways in which we, ourselves, manage to resist and betray God's purposes for us and for the world through us.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Throne of Blood

My latest Netflix DVD was a movie I'd seen years ago, Throne of Blood--Akira Kurosawa's magnificent Japanese adaptation of Macbeth. A couple of things struck me this time around that I hadn't remembered from last time. One was that in terms of plot and characterization Kurosawa's version is, in some ways, an improvement on Shakespeare's (yes, blasphemy, I know).

In Shakespeare, we jump from the witches predicting that Macbeth will become the king to Macbeth already having discussed the murder of Duncan with his wife and beginning to get cold feet about it. In Kurosawa's version, Washizu's wife Akaji lays out a logical (if paranoid and cynical) reason for killing the Great Lord. If Miki (the Banquo equivalent) tells the Great Lord about the prophecy, then the Great Lord (who himself got his position by killing his predecessor, unlike the saintly Duncan) will move to crush Washizu. As they're discussing this, word comes that the Great Lord's forces are moving through the forest toward the castle. It turns out that it's a surprise visit (in Macbeth, Duncan gives notice that he's coming) and that the Great Lord has appointed Washizu to command the vanguard in the coming war. Washizu sees this as reassuring--the Great Lord clearly still trusts him--but Akaji suggests that the overlord is trying to get him killed, while giving Miki command of the central "Spider Web Castle."

Washizu decides to go along with the murder. Miki throws his support behind Washizu, citing the prophecy. But, as in Macbeth, Washizu now mistrusts Miki, since the prophecy had said that Miki's son would rule. However, since Washizu has no heir, he thinks he can fulfill the prophecy without more bloodshed by declaring Miki's son his heir (Macbeth never considers doing this as far as I remember). Akaji objects strenuously, and finally reveals that she is pregnant. Washizu again capitulates, for the sake of his unborn child, and has Miki murdered. As in Shakespeare, Miki's ghost appears at the feast and scares Washizu out of his wits. Akaji's child is stillborn, and as the invading army cuts branches from the trees (just as in Macbeth), Washizu's own men, whom he has told of the prophecy about the forest "rising to attack," turn on him and riddle him with arrows.

Washizu's actions, while essentially the same as Macbeth's, are far more comprehensible. At every step, he seems to have good reason to fear that his potential victims will turn on him. (He also doesn't kill women and children as Macbeth does.) His wife is paranoid rather than simply ambitious. The result is a story that perhaps has less pathological intensity than Macbeth's, but actually makes more sense as a study of power and how those who seek and wield power wind up destroying themselves.

The Criterion commentator sees Kurosawa's version as nihilistic and fatalistic, arguing that Washizu (unlike Macbeth) has no real choice. I think this is nonsense. At any point, he could have rejected his wife's cynical logic and chosen to risk death rather than act dishonorably. And this brings me to the second point I noticed this time around--the role of Buddhism in the forest spirit's prophecy.

The spirit is referred to in the English subtitles as an "evil spirit," and the commentator calls it a "witch," assimilating it to Shakespeare's three "weird sisters" to which it clearly corresponds. But the song the spirit sings as Washizu and Miki discover it in the forest is full of Buddhist language such as karma and the neverending cycle of human life fueled by desire--language also found in the opening and closing chorus of the movie. The spirit turns a wheel (presumably a spinning wheel) as it sings, evoking the basic Buddhist symbol of the "wheel of dharma."

The spirit's words to the two generals are full of promise and temptation, but the song that precedes those words points in the opposite direction, reminding them of the futility of desire and ambition, since everything ends in "rotten flesh."

It seems to me that Washizu does have a choice--he could have chosen to listen to the spirit's song rather than its alluring words, refusing to heap up bad karma by pursuing the path of selfish desire. He could have chosen to act generously and justly even in the face of the real possibility that others would not behave that way toward him. The prophecy unveils the web of karma in which he is caught. But there is always a way out. Stop craving, stop fearing, stop grasping at time and fate in order to control them.

And the same is true for us, as we worry about what Donald Trump might do or what Hillary Clinton might do or what ISIS might do or what the fundamentalists or the liberals or the gays or the socialists or the capitalists might do to us. We can persuade ourselves that the part of wisdom is to strike first, to treat others as if they were the monsters our fear makes them, or we can choose to break the wheel. We're going to die either way, sooner or later, and we're probably going to die sooner if the cycle of fear and violence isn't broken. So what do we have to lose?

Friday, August 19, 2016

Love the person, hate the sin?

Rebecca Bratten Weiss adds her voice to the many condemning the maxim, "hate the sin, love the sinner." I agree with the substance of what Rebecca is saying here, but I still can't see how this means that "hate the sin, love the sinner" is a false maxim. Quite the reverse. She has a good point that labeling people as "sinners" (as if we aren't sinners ourselves) is a problem, so we could rephrase it as "hate the sin, love the person." C. S. Lewis makes the persuasive point that we all take precisely this attitude to ourselves. We hate our own sins because we love ourselves and desire to be free from them. Charity is extending that same attitude to others.
I don't see any way to reject the principle found in that much-reviled maxim without doing exactly what Rebecca so eloquently condemns in this excellent post. If you really think that you can't draw lines between people and their sins, then, for instance, you either have to tolerate racism or hate racists. I see no other option. I find that usually when people attack the maxim they are thinking of things that they don't consider to be evil at all--usually homosexuality. They are arguing that no one can hold to traditional Christian morality on sexual matters without condemning the person who engages in "sinful" acts. But to test the maxim we should apply it to acts that everyone considers evil, like rape. And here the point under dispute is surely not whether we should hate rape, but whether we should love Brock Turner. In other words, rejecting the principle "hate the sin, love the person who commits the sin" will not lead to more charity, but to less. It will also not lead, as many conservatives fear, to a mushy "love everybody and don't call out sin" attitude. It will lead--and demonstrably is leading--to shrill denunciation of anyone associated with things you really consider evil, with absolutely no sense that you are supposed to love and respect the person who is in the grip of evil.
The blogger Rebecca is citing in this piece, Susan Cottrell, traces the maxim to Gandhi (she also notes that the basic principle originally comes from Augustine, but both she and Rebecca don't really engage with that, which I wish they did). She argues that since Gandhi says that the maxim is easy to understand but is rarely practiced, therefore he's really saying that it's impossible. But that's not what he's saying at all. He's saying that hating sin while loving the sinner is hard and should be done, not that it's impossible and thus not worth trying. The claim that Jesus didn't teach hate the sin and love the sinner is also rather strange, since the argument is simply that Jesus taught that we should love everyone. But that's the very point of the maxim. According to traditional Christian theology, sin is a privation--something that corrupts and destroys the creatures of God, to quote the 1979 BCP's baptismal vows. To "hate sin" is precisely to love the person who is being corrupted and destroyed by sin.
Cottrell, like many people who criticize "hate the sin, love the sinner," is especially concerned with the way it's used against gay people. I see why, as a short-term strategy, this could be an effective way for progressive Christians to make their point. But as I pointed out above, it has devastating larger implications for how we respond to things that everyone really agrees are evil and destructive. And, of course, Cottrell and other progressive Christians don't think same-sex sexual acts are sinful anyway. Surely the more effective approach, then, would be to show that the maxim doesn't apply in this instance, precisely because it does reflect a valid principle with regard to things that are truly sinful. The strongest argument on the progressive side, it seems to me, is precisely that it's hard to see how one can "hate the sin and love the sinner" in this instance, both because the "sin" is so intertwined with a person's identity (at least in our culture) and because it's hard to see how consensual, monogamous sexual relationships between people of the same sex actually "corrupt and destroy the creatures of God."
I entirely agree that the phrase has become a cliche and is generally used to legitimize the very behavior that it supposedly rules out. And beyond Rebecca's point about implying that only some (other) people are sinners, I can see how putting "hate the sin" first can be harmful, because it could imply that this is the more important priority. As Rebecca points out, we can "walk away from the sinner" but we can't simply "walk away" from sin. Hence, precisely because of our own sinfulness, we will inevitably twist "hate the sin, love the sinner" into "walk away from sinners whose sins happen to annoy us, while giving lip service to love.
Perhaps the underlying problem is our need to deal with tricky moral situations with a cliche. So by all means, let's give up on the cliche. Let's stop saying "hate the sin, love the sinner." But let's try harder to follow the ancient Christian theological principle that underlies the cliche--that we should oppose that which destroys God's creation precisely out of love. The only alternative to this is ceasing to love.