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To some friends in dialogue

July 30, 2010

An extensive reply here due to comment limitations elsewhere.

One of you wrote:
“That death has been downplayed and diminished even in how it is handled in KJS’s Easter sermons. Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. And He submitted to God fully even unto death.

To deny or diminish even a portion of Jesus’s sacrifice is reprehensible and offensive to many of us. That many including (a few of you) don’t grasp how horrific it is and can just wave their hands like it didn’t happen diminishes their credibility.”

I think that the objection is not that your own personal words imply a lack of sensibility, but rather your refusal to acknowledge how awful KJS’s words are in the way they diminish Christ’s teachings about who He is raises certain questions.

One of you has contended that since I do not cite a phrase in which she patently and directly denies e.g. the resurrection, that he is ethically free to ignore my words since he is bound to treat me as a hostile and unethical interlocutor, and the best treatment is to ignore such an interlocutor. Or something similar – I am “expanding” his rather simple words in order to try to understand the full warrant of this belief and failure to address the issue in a serious manner. Others have said that they are not convinced that she denies these things, though they have not taken the effort to describe any mistakes I have made in drawing these conclusions.

It is difficult to draw the conclusions since she uses a convoluted mixture of words and most certainly does not wish to be pointed at as someone who denies Christ. However, she is most certainly denying the importance of the resurrection by substituting its position in faith with some “meaning” (and context allows us to reasonably imply that this is environmentalism and some other ethical mandates – all very good ones, by the way). One might think that they would take the time at least to address how sad her choice of words is, or to commit themselves to protesting that TEC embraces a more robust and clear Christology, even though some will most certainly complain that this involves “defining” such things (thereby leaving the door open to reducing the word “God” to nothing more than a signifier for a particular form of ethics tied to therapy).

For them I can say:
– there is indeed some kind of “shock value” in hearing “KJS denies the resurrection” – though I find her words to be clear enough that she is doing this, and that we need to be woken up
– many when confronted by something shocking are numbed by it instead of woken up. I am aware of this risk. It may also damage the faith of some who were unaware of this. I am aware of this risk as well, but I believe the risk of not exposing her words to the lamp of reason is far worse.
– many who are at first numbed will nonetheless, later, see that something is very, very, very wrong and find time to reflect on this matter.
– it is incredibly difficult for Episcopalians to criticize their church leaders for this type of issue. They risk estrangement or being branded as someone who is an extremist, wishes to destroy the church, or is homophobic (no matter what their views on sexuality).
– there is no “gentle” way of addressing this issue in a manner which also does it justice. Cf. Paul in Galatians 1:6-8. So it is terribly polarizing. Schori’s own formulation, I believe, was intended to “bring together” those who believe in the resurrection, and those who don’t – but she errs thereby in denying the importance of the resurrection and creating the myth that there is some “meaning” of an event which can be separated from the event itself.
– this is not a situation of their making, and in fact ALL of us who are Anglicans are in a way responsible for it. KJS is not “the only one responsible here” – she justly points out that salvation is not an exclusively individual phenomenon, but has communal aspects. Mutandis mutandis, when we have a problem of this scale, it is also, in some sense, all Anglicans who are culpable. And they may not yet feel that other Anglicans are supporting them, but rather trying to “paint” them in the same corner as KJS, and declaring themselves somehow as “pure” and sin-free.
We might not have been in this situation had the Communion acted on the ugly Christology of Spong in addition to its actions regarding sexuality. And for a Trinitarian, the denial of Christ by a church leader is by far worse than any imaginable sex act or abuse.
– there is something so ugly in even the thought that this may have occurred that one wishes to avert one’s eyes.

One of you asks another of you why you, if concerned, do not write to KJS if you are an Episcopalian? I suppose you might, but I wonder why a church claiming more than 2 million adherents, apparently none has done so yet? Or why no one seems to think this is a “big deal?” This confirms for me that there is very very little hope that TEC can be “saved” in the next generation and that the Communion as a whole must repent of what it allowed to happen. None of us are “innocent.”

I would suggest that it is probably easier for those outside of TEC to look at this more objectively, since TEC is so embattled, and members of TEC often feel they are being pointed at and castigated, and must struggle to defend their institution. Much is “exaggerated” about TEC – I find much of the reporting about TEC sadly uncharitable, and this must be apparent to many members of TEC.

I wish there were a more “friendly” way of pointing this out, a more “gentle” way. I am afraid that there is none. I only hope that the Communion recognizes this as a serious issue, and acts in such a way as to inspire those in power to select as successors persons within TEC who have a confident faith in the Risen Christ (and there are quite a few), and perhaps in a generation or two TEC might be deemed as a place which is “safe” for us to send our brothers and sisters who do not already have a robust faith.

As it stands, we Anglicans are no longer Trinitarian Christians in practice, and we would do best to inform our ecumenical partners of this fact so they can help us in whatever ways they find fit; and preventing the assumption that we are Trinitarian from damaging or diminishing their own faith.

Neither Spong nor Schori are particularly brilliant, neither engages in scholarship and thinking that are truly challenging for a person with a minimal education in religious matters. We have given up our Christology for this ugly, cheap stuff. Such a condition could only come to exist in a backwater of a dismal lack of education in theology. We often pride ourselves as being “educated” and “open-minded” but in truth we are rather ignorant compared to other churches, and we are rather dogmatic in our pronouncements of the flaws of these other churches. These other churches – whom so many Anglicans accuse as “leaving their brains at the door” – are in general far better educated than we are in theological matters, and they don’t engage in telling lies about other churches in an attempt at helping their adherents to feel better about themselves (Spong).

Friends in dialogue who find it difficult to accept these criticisms of KJS – I do not wish to imply that any of you are like Spong or KJS in any way. And I understand “where you are coming from.” I was once an Episcopalian myself, but am no longer after having changed continents. I enjoyed bashing non-denominational evangelicals, Catholics, baptists, pentecostalists, etc. etc., without realizing what utter tripe my own denomination was peddling to the weak and intellectually destitute with this Spong stuff. I must step back and admit my own error. In the area of intellectual integrity and theological education, we Anglicans are definitely at the very bottom of the pile. We need these non-denominational evangelicals, these Catholics, these baptists, these pentecostalists to come to us and teach us who Jesus is, and to show us that many of our preconceptions about them are simply insular stereotypes garnered from the media or the Anglican grapevine, and that they are much, much better at elucidating challenging, nuanced, and difficult areas of faith in a rational and charitable manner than we are. And that so many Anglicans go about saying that “we don’t leave our brains at the door” – is utterly pathetic when one thinks about it, pathetic enough to drive one to tears. All in all, as a Communion, we are neither witty, nor intelligent, nor kind.

One might say, “Wilf, it sounds like you don’t have much respect for KJS, or for people who like Spong.” All I can say is, if you are a Spong fan, that I am ashamed that the institution to which I belong let you down by failing to teach you some very basic facts that should be a part of the education of any Trinitarian Christian, and which are taught in many basic catechism classes; and that we allowed ourselves to pollute your sensibilities to such an extent that you are attracted to material which is more full of ad hominems and straw men than it is informed by honest and reasoned argument, and which is so appealing to one’s sense of schadenfreude.  I would advise you to look back at the texts, the arguments, and the emotional appeals, and the implicit appeals to the reader to feel better than other classes of persons who, we are taught, believe in such things as “divine sperm” etc. etc.., and that a more charitable reader would have first ascertained whether there are any such people who believe such things, before being drawn to believe that people of other denominations are so blightedly irrational and reprehensible in their moral vision – something which should be apparent, to quote Spong, to “anybody who is able to read, though parts of Georgia and Kansas have a hard time with that.” You should cultivate “alarm bells” that warn you of language which tempts you to believe by arrogating yourself above others, or the implication that you are worthless if you do not believe.

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4 comments

  1. I think what I find interesting about KJS is how she may define the word “Christ.” I do think she believes in “Christ” but what is not clear to me – and what often sounds like old Christian Science teaching – is how she “defines” the word” Christ.

    Before we can even begin to engage in theological discussion, we must define our terms and that is where I believe the breakdown happens in the current theological crisis that undergirds the tearing of the fabric that we know as the Anglican Communion. We simply do not enjoy a common definition of the word “Christ.”

    bb


  2. That’s so true.

    Then, however, we often hear pleas: “But it’s *wrong* to define God!”

    It’s important to understand this plea, but also to address it, and not let it simply stand in the way of substantive theological discourse, or let it allow complete apostasy.

    It is not up to “us” to “define” God; God has revealed Himself in the person of His Son, in His various dealings with men, and of course, in Scripture.

    Some paintings are quite foggy and gauzy; others have some clear lines. There is some “definition” here – and often the very “definition” is a part of the “mystery” of the whole, and the meaning of the whole.

    Such is the case with what God tells us about Himself. Parts are not clear, but some parts are very clear, with ringing clarity. The Resurrection is, par excellence, such a moment of rather shocking definition – not in the sense of “defining a word,” but in the sense of making clear that some things are the case, and others are not.

    In order to engage in language responsibly, we do need at least some consistency in our use of words, and agreement as to how to use it. This is basic philosophy 101 type stuff, and something everyone should understand. It’s always possible that we are doing something wrong in the way we use the words, and we should be open to criticism. But this doesn’t mean that we should abandon all effort at clarity. To do so would mean to give up theology itself.

    KJS has her own “defining” moments, and her own statements include some possibilities, and preclude others. One possibility which she precludes, which I find important is: she precludes the possibility that the bodily Resurrection of Christ is important – or at least that its importance transcends any “meaning” that we might attach to it.

    By the same token one might ask: “what right does she have to define it this way, and preclude this possibility? Who is she to deny what I believe?”

    I do not ask this since it is a silly way of arguing and it does no justice to the weighty matter at hand. It subjects the discussion about matters of truth to matters about persons and feelings.

    In doing so, we “define” acceptable discourse into a highly narrow, reified area – and exclude a great deal – we are saying, “I will speak of your feelings and your poetic meanings only; but I will reject all discourse that pertains to matters of fact, or issues that we might share that are concrete.” It denies intersubjectivity at a very basic level. And it separates “theology” into a relatively meaningless area of discourse which does not touch upon the rest of life. So we are really acting in a more “defining” and “exclusive” way when doing this.

    Anyone with doubts on this matter would do well to read Anthony Thisselton on hermeneutics – he has some very nice, accessible works – or one can read Gadamer (very difficult, but worth it if you can handle it). There is a whole history of assumptions here, there are reasons that these ways of speaking are attractive to us, and they do seem somehow to hold out an infinite playing ground of meanings and freedom in speaking about God. But that is only if one has fundamentally (one could say “fundamentalistically”) accepted the presuppositions behind them. And these presuppositions were exposed and put aside in the early twentieth century. For that, you can read about Barth and Schleiermacher – or the difference between Schleiermacher, Romanticism, and twentieth-century philosophy and hermeneutics. Even Bultmann came to embrace Heidegger, whose phenomenology stands firmly against the romanticism of Schleirmacher. It is so important for people to realize: “theology is not all about you, and your feelings. It goes way beyond that. But in going beyond that, it comes into the area of the intersubjective – where we share things – share meanings, share a physical, three-dimensional world – and share the church in which we live – and we are one in the very real God whom we worship – this God is not a mere social construct, or projection of our desires and ideals.”

    In longing for infinite freedom to say whatever we want about God when we teach the church, we are looking for infitite freedom really for molding God into whatever pattern we find most acceptable – and we are not submitting to God Himself, who Is who He Is. God revealed Himself to Moses as: “I am – I am who I am.” This is not an intersubjective playland that we sometimes discuss with others. God is Who He is, though we often will not understand Him, and often will encounter things in life which make us feel alienated from Him. It is not then for us to change our notions of God; it is rather for us to turn toward Him, and change ourselves if necessary, and to change our world if necessary.

    We do not want to tempt people into thinking that with the word “Christ” they can simply mean: “all those nice, lovely things we stand for together as a church!” This is the death of faith, and it is enormously difficult for a person who has been taught this in church to move beyond such a stultified faith.

    It matters not if “all those nice, lovely things we stand for” are “justice and equality for all people, and a healthy environment” or if they mean “anti-abortion laws and protection for the military industrial complex.” None of that matters. The problem is the same: we can not replace Christ with such things.

    Such is pathetic, as well. Obviously: whichever “side” does this, will make those who love Christ more skeptical of whatever social / political aims they espouse. And the situation is tragic when these are good social / political aims: as good people will be tempted to resist the good aims, simply because they see these aims replacing Jesus.

    There is no question in my mind that Anglicans have had a profoundly negative impact upon the cause of environmentalism, for example. Persons from other churches who resist the notion of “Christ” being replaced with politics are quite aware that this is one of the favorite “idols” of those so-called “liberal churches” – and what we do as Anglicans sometimes bears out what they suspect, almost as if we were following a script.

    I think that these days, part of this fear of “defining” things is: a fear of exclusion. If we “define” the Resurrection to mean: “the bodily Resurrection of Christ,” does that exclude all those people who don’t believe this?

    We need to be clear with our words and our behavior: that we warmly commend this to the faith – that we make clear that this is what the church teaches – but we by no means make this a condition, i.e., for coming to church, or for taking part in our fellowship.

    We need to be clear that this does become relevant, however, when one wants to teach in the church. It should become more evident to some of us that, if one wishes to teach people that Jesus did not rise from the dead – or that this is unimportant – that we will advise against this. We advise against this even if it makes some people amongst us uncomfortable who would like to teach that the Resurrection is unimportant, or that we should define the Resurrection to mean something else. And such uncomfortable people – we are then there to lovingly comfort them and warmly commend to them, as well, the faith.

    If they insist on teaching this nonetheless, then sadly, we must separate ourselves from them. But this is not completely a loss either, and hopefully they will eventually “lose” their faith in the importance of teaching against the resurrection, in order to gain a new one – a faith in the living Christ. If we do not, and continue to let them teach that the resurrection is unimportant, we do them a terrible, terrible injustice, by living with the illusion that this is actually of very little importance to ourselves.


  3. As one who has not given questions about the PB’s theology as much attention as they deserve, I apologize. My initial responses were based solely on my own reading of the evidence, i.e., of her reported statements. Although I would not have used the words she used, I did not see in her words denials of the resurrection or of the divinity of Jesus the Christ.

    Having been encouraged to do so, I have read James Coder’s paper. I disagree with the conclusion that the Presiding Bishop “has denied the
    church’s teaching of the resurrection….” I think Coder may have misunderstood what she meant by “meaning” in her statement. I think the the PB, along with Paul Tillich and others, sees the absence of meaning or purpose as a significant characteristic of contemporary life. While it is not all that can and should be said about the resurrection, it is important to say that it is transformative for us, that it gives our lives purpose, meaning.

    Coder asserts that the PB has had ample opportunity and has failed to make a clear statement that she believes “Christ to be more than simply an alternative word for a human ethic and ethos….” However in the quotes he provided at the beginning of this section of the paper we find what I take to be such a statement: “”This carpenter from Nazareth or Bethlehem – and there are different
    stories about where he comes from – shows us what a godly human being looks like, shows us God come
    among us.” “God come among us” is a simple and completely orthodox way of speaking about Jesus. Assuredly, the PB puts an emphasis here and elsewhere on what the revelation of God in Christ shows us about living as godly human beings, but that has been part of orthodox tradition as well. Even the idea, which seems to strike Coder as suspicious, of our “becoming divine” has its roots in the Epistles. This transformation certainly includes, but is not limited, to ethical living. I do not see the PB’s emphasis on ethics as anything more than an emphasis, and not a denial of our incorporation into Christ.

    As stated earlier, I would not have spoken about the resurrection or the person of Christ is exactly the way the PB has. Nor would I see her statements as being the kind of profound statements that we find in Tillich or Barth. However, after weighing the evidence and considering Coder’s analysis of the evidence, I cannot agree with his conclusions.


    • Many thanks, Fr. Weir, for reading the paper and for your thoughtful reply. I shall be thinking about it, and I am delighted that you yourself would not use these words.

      I must say, I knew from your comments and blog postings that you would not, but I am pleased that you are able to admit that these are words that you would not use.

      As for a first reply, I would say that “God come among us” can be a completely orthodox way of speaking about Jesus, but no longer is when we have re-defined the word “divinity” – i.e., God Himself – to mean “a great figure,” in the same way the word had been used for describing other mortals – as she does in the previous sentence.

      One could argue that she “doesn’t mean this” – but this is an exceptionally weak argument, because of the context of this statement.

      The interviewer asks Presiding Bishop Jefferts-Schori about the case of a person who believes in the divinity of Christ, but not the virgin birth. After making clear that Jefferts-Schori does not believe in the virgin birth, by speaking deridingly of “parthenogenesis” and providing no divine alternative, it seems then that she is out to disabuse the naïve interviewer that she might be such a “fundamentalist” as to believe in the divinity of Christ, as if she is insulted that it might be insinuated that she would believe in such a thing, in a similar way that she finds “literal” belief in the virgin birth to be so insulting as to bring up parthenogenesis. She was not asked by the interviewer to elucidate the teaching of the church on the divinity of Christ; she offers this on her own. So I find it most likely to correct the interviewer of the confusion that she might view the divinity of Christ to mean something other than a very noble human aspiration.

      Since the whole does more to cast doubt upon the divinity of Christ than to affirm it, it is clear enough to me that her intention is to make clear to the audience of Parabola Magazine that she “reinterprets” the divinity of Christ to mean such lofty things as the values she emphasizes later in the article – non-violence, higher consciousness, etc. etc., and that like the virgin birth, the divinity of Christ in its “orthodox” sense is a myth which she reinterprets to mean a set of ideals which we should all emulate.

      The context of the readership also makes this reading more plausible. Parabola Magazine is for people interested in spiritual subjects, but not a Christian publication. This answer offers the Presiding Bishop a way of identifying with the readers, and it takes away any possible offense to readers who might object to someone believing that Jesus is more than merely human, and places her more in line with views which the audience of Parabola Magazine would likely find more “modern” regarding the divinity of Christ – like Carter Heyward or Marcus Borg.

      Another very telling bit of context here is Jefferts-Schori’s Easter day sermons – they consistently fail to mention a resurrection which seems to be more than a metaphor for environmentalism or a subjective feeling of overcoming.

      I have also seen materials of the Presiding Bishop in settings with more “conservative” Christians. In these, she certainly uses vocabulary which the conservatives would understand – I remember one video where she brings up the danger of “salvation by works,” which of course more reformed conservative Christians would have heard of – this then associated with “saying a particular prayer” for salvation (and of course, here she is right, though her aim is to undermine the doctrine of the uniqueness of Christ – and it is odd, to say the least, that one would bring up the spectre of pelagianism in such a context, since in a context of a non-unique Christ, one also needn’t be too worried either by “salvation by works”).

      There are moments that I think she is just genuinely confused, and hasn’t thought many of these things over herself; but in a non-systematic way, merely emphasizes those things she feels prompted to. I think that at times, her answer to the question, “is God real for us in any significant manner beyond the ethics and ethos of the church?” would be: “I sure hope there is, but I’m really not so sure, and I see it as my task to point people to the importance of the here and now, and what this church really needs to do.” I think that she has been surrounded by church leaders with a similar type of belief, and thus finds it enormously difficult even to bring to the fore the conceptual attention necessary for exploring systematic theology and the interconnection between our beliefs about Christ, and prefers language which appears to leave her in non-committal vagueness about the reality of God and the divinity of Christ. The problem is: when she arrogates a “meaning” of the Resurrection above the Resurrection itself – or even, as Daniel helpfully points out – something like “the meaning of life” or some kind of fulfillment that moderns tend to miss – she has committed herself. If the Resurrection itself is not more significant than any of these things – it simply is not. Imagining a Resurrection which is somehow less significant than a powerful feeling of life-meaning is like imagining God to be less than all-loving. The very concept breaks down into meaninglessness – or else, complete abdication to that other thing to which it is contrasted – here, “meaning” – with the event itself lingering as a kind of hazy myth, bereft of its central place in our understanding of Christ and our faith.

      Is this what Presiding Bishop Jefferts-Schori intended? I am almost certain that she did not intend this. However, words and sentences have a certain logic, and we sometimes say things with implications which we do not intend, but implications which are there nonetheless. The problem to faith is this: persons who are exposed to her teachings may not consciously “connect the dots” in this way at the moment they hear her, but their minds will likely connect the dots for them in an unconscious manner later, and leave confusion and perhaps also a feeling that the church has betrayed them – either in teaching them silly myths, or else in denying essential aspects of Christ’s identity. The total effect is quite blighting to faith, and can be very subtly blighting – not exhibiting itself “rationally” or in ideas which are easily deconstructed and laid aside. There is a profound “existential” element to one’s connection of trust to one’s church leaders – and this is something which transcends mere rational assent to logical principles.



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