Friday, May 6, 2011

Cathedral in the City of the Living God: Introductory Remarks at the 2011 North American Deans Conference

In Tron, the 1982 movie, Jeff Bridges plays a character named Kevin Flynn. Flynn ends up entering the internal world of a computer program called the grid – all owned by a company called ENCOM. There he engages in a fight between life and death between him and a security program. After winning the battle for control over the programed universe and its ruler the Master Control Program (MCP) he aims to reimagine and recreate the world through his image of perfection. And, if all goes his way, Jeff Bridges’ character hopes to not only make the computer world perfect but also to make the human world perfect as well; doing this by bridging the two worlds permanently.

Tron Legacy begins where Tron left off. In 1989, 7 years after defeating the MCP (the Master Control Program), Kevin Flynn (played again by Jeff Bridges) disappears.

Twenty years later - 2009, his son, Sam Flynn(Garrett Hedlund), who became ENCOM's controlling shareholder after his father's disappearance, discovers a concealed computer laboratory and unintentionally transports himself to the Grid.

Once again the computer world is at odds with itself and after escaping the bad guys, Sam is taken to a distant, off-grid hideout in the "Outlands," where he is reunited with his father.

Sam’s father explains that in 1989 he had been working on a new, "perfect" system. He had created a program called CLU to recreate the world into a perfect civilization. CLU took over and now was hoping to export the perfect program world, ruled by CLU, into the imperfect world of humans. Not unlike a modern Nazi Blitz Krieg ready to strike, the programs led by CLU are ready to depart into the human world.

Spoiler alert: it doesn’t work. The good guys win. Sam gets the girl. But in the last scene there is a great confession between Jeff Bridges’ character, Flynn, and the perfect program (now dictator) he had created - CLU.

Clu: I did everything... everything you ever asked!

Kevin Flynn: I know you did.

Clu: I executed the plan!

Kevin Flynn: As you saw it...

Clu: You- You promised that we would change the world, together. You broke your promise...

Kevin Flynn: I know. I understand that now.

Clu: I took this system to it's maximum potential. I created the perfect system!

Kevin Flynn: I know you did.

Clu: I executed the plan!

Kevin Flynn: As you saw it...

Clu: You- You promised that we would change the world, together. You broke your promise...

Kevin Flynn: I know. I understand that now.

Clu: I took this system to it's maximum potential. I created the perfect system!

Kevin Flynn: The thing about perfection is that it's unknowable. It's impossible, but it's also right in front of us all the time. You wouldn't know that because I didn't when I created you. I'm sorry, Clu. I'm sorry...

While a critique on perfection sought in technology, the two films are also a conversation about vision and the perfect world, and humanity’s inability to perfect the City and Empire. Tron and Tron Legacy in some way are a conversation about the imperfection of the human initiative called society.

They are films about the “not quite thereness” of our world and attempts to build a perfect society.

In the words of Flynn, “perfection is unknowable…but it’s also right in front of us all the time.”

This contradiction, this dialectic, this manifestation of vision and reality is also the timeless theological struggle between the reign or kingdom of God and the fallen human capacity to bring about its reality within the span of history.

John Milbank, the Anglican theologian, wrote in his book entitled Theology and Social Theory: “[We] must recognize that the church has thus far failed to bring about salvation…and instead has ushered in the modern secular - at first liberal, and finally nihilistic-world.

In your time together you will explore the topic: City of the Living God. As Deans and leaders in the Episcopal Church what does it mean to proclaim the city of your context as the city of the living God?

We might first ask: How did we get here? What is our narrative story? And, what do we need to do change? Is it possible to move beyond the secular and the profane division in our post-modern culture and change the islands of our Cathedrals into outposts immersed in cities of the living God in a new missionary age?

If we turn to our ancient of texts we see clearly that the foundational narratives of the Hebrew Scriptures reveal to us that the people of Yahweh clearly understood that God was in conflict with the notion of empire and state. The creation stories of Babel, Noah, and Abraham all offer this view. The cities of Egypt were in the end not a hospitable place for God’s people.

The tribes of Israel were marked by their refusal to stay within the ideological boundaries of Egypt; thereafter their first leaders and judges struggled with the notion of empire. We don’t have to look too deeply to recognize the concern in the Prophet Samuel’s words to God and to the people that he was concerned about the creation of a royal house.

Only in the shadow of the first and second Temple do we see a change. It is here that we see meaning emerge that supports for the first time the City as the dwelling place of the living God.

In 2009 Walter Brueggeman spoke to the House of Bishops meeting in Kanuga and helped us to understand the historical difference of Israel’s prophetic tradition in the context of city. He explained Israel’s wrestling match with power. When Israel was in power and under self-rule the prophetic witness was focused upon the change needed internally within the sacred Abrahamic family. However, when Israel was occupied their prophetic voice was targeted at the occupying power, empire, and city.

It is within this latter prophetic tradition that we make our way through the inter-testamental period of the Greek occupation, to the occupation of the Romans, and the time of Jesus.

While the words of Jesus in the Gospel lesson from Matthew are a testimony of this time period we must also recognize they are written from within the context, and urban life, of Matthew’s community; probably written in a large city – possibly even Antioch.

We must understand that within a decade of the resurrection the village culture of Palestine had been left behind and it was the Greco-Roman city that became the dominant environment of the Christian movement.

Cities were where power was, places where changes could occur. It was in the city that new lives were made; after all subsistence living in villages did not provide much fertile ground for change. The city was the place where the new civilization could be experienced.

Antonio Nigri, the Marxist philosopher, reminds us that it is in the city that groups have power to define how human life is produced and managed without consultation of those whose lives are being shaped by their actions.

It was in these cities that Paul stirred up leaders and people followed and built the first footprints of a new Christendom – the potential for a new city of the living God was taking root; a city unseen since the brief years of the first Temple.

As the biblical scholar Wayne Meeks put it: Paul didn’t get imprisoned by the authorities by meditating in the desert or the sandy wastelands of Damascus; nor by wandering from village to village but by preaching in Petra, Gerasa, and Philadelphia.

John Baldwin the Roman Catholic historian and liturgist described the context of the emerging community in this way:

A city involves a certain concentration of population brought together for various social, economic, and political reasons. But a city is more than this, just as it is more than its number of buildings, streets, and public places. The city is a powerful idea, a symbol of human society. The Roman concept of civitas, for example, stood for the city as well as for civilization. A city is a public symbol expressing and facing a society’s concept of itself.
Pluralism and religious tolerance are modern ideas unfamiliar to the biblical witness. So it is that unlike what many scholars might suggest the America (and the West) of today is a context wholly unfamiliar to the context of Jesus and his disciples.

Baldwin continues:

Medieval Jerusalem, Rome, Constantinople [were] a world in which Christianity found the symbolic basis for social life; worship was not confined to the neighborhood church. It was public; it acclaimed the society’s connectedness with the sacred; it made the streets and plazas sacred places in addition to the church and shrines, the city became church.
In this first five centuries of Christianity’s missionary explosion they understood the city as a sacred place. In the empire of Christendom there was no non-sacred space.

John’s Revelation provides us with a glimpse of the earliest vision of what was to come to pass. He uses the image of city to describe heaven (21.2, 10-21) symbolic of itself but also of society’s intimate connection with sacred reality.

In the context that was to build up the great cathedrals of Europe and Vatican city we see a continuum from the very earliest days of coopting synagogues well into the post reformation period that churches were essentially assembly halls. Churches were the public meeting space. These gathering places included separate space for holy actions but were centers of trade and politics. Often times the sacred art of making Eucharist occurred in conjunction with a king or nobleman dealing with the matters of business and state.

Early Church historians are very clear that the missionary outposts within the city walls were not shrines or special cites. Certainly there were shrines, but the majority of Christian livelihood permeated the city and the city permeated the church.

These churches were not some kind of separate sacred oasis for the spiritually oriented; quite the contrary.

We might say that they were in a very real way the centers of the living God’s work in the world; each rippling out the Gospel message of a resurrected Lord who was active in the world in which people lived and moved and had their being. After all, Jesus was not martyr and his body was not enshrined for people to come and visit but was rather part and parcel with life.

Early churches represented the city in miniature; they encapsulated within themselves an icon or representation of public life. Churches were public buildings that lay at the heart of social symbol systems. While a part of the city they also were place with a clear and distinguishable environment which formed the citizens into Christians.

Chrysostom, while Antioch was in a time of civic turmoil, remarked “the whole city has become church for us.”

Unfortunately Christianity has had an easier time moving into the power center of city life than it has moving out of the Constantinian ideal of the Empire Church.

And, despite its difficulty in doing so, it has probably been best for the church to lose its grip on power.

I think all of us recognize that the abuse of power at this time, today fodder for cable programming, is not something most of us wish to return to.

Today the church exists in a world without a single common symbol system; and most of the symbols are not our own.

One priest recently noted after visiting churches for three months while on sabbatical that we are speaking a dying language. The expression of our faith, our liturgy, and our language have more in common with the 7,000 vanishing languages globally than they do with the language, civic culture and society in which we make our home.

Today our Cathedrals and our church find their context in a society that affirms a healthy pluralism in which, in principle, no single religious group or church can demand adherence of all citizens.

What has happened then is that symbolically speaking the city must has become secular, separate, and not directly related to the sacred. As Richard Semeth, a philosopher noted in his book The Fall of the Public Man, “In a pluralistic society the whole of life…and… religious belief, have become a highly practical affair.”

Our churches have in large part become shrines. They have become sanctuaries within a divided city. Our churches, and our Cathedrals, are expected to be sanctuary from the civil life and politic of our culture. The problem emerges Harvey Cox suggests, that it becomes very difficult to merge the world of worship and the world of living in a civil society.

The task before us is to somehow reclaim the notion of our City being the City of the Living God. We must work to bring the church (ecclesia) and city (civitas) closer together.

To see again for the first time the potential of a missionary field that stretches out from the four corners of our Cathedrals.

I am not in any way proposing a return to a Constantinian church, state, theocracy, or religious city. This is impossible in our current social context; it is the problem with most discussions around reclaiming the city of or for a living God.

I have a vision though. I have a particular hope. I imagine that the Episcopal Church, and the Cathedral as chief exemplar, can become a community immersed in the world. We have the potential to be a missionary and public voice proclaiming our cities as places of the living God.

The challenge and the problem is that most of us continue to have a view of the church which is primarily modern in its thought and its mission.

If we are to claim our Cities as cities of the living God we are going to have to change our theology and our mission; we must change the why of engagement as well as the how.

Harvey Cox writes in his musing on the secular city, “The failure of modern theology is that it continues to supply plausible answers to questions that fewer and fewer people are asking.” Not unlike the twentieth century, we are largely continuing to answer questions and problems from a period that no longer exists.

It is our very theology that has birthed nihilism and moralistic therapeutic deism. We have birthed a desert of repose for our people and have emptied the church from its missionary sense of purpose: To make Christ known and to change the world by loving God and neighbor is our mission; the Augustine virtue of caritas being the living out, the practice, of Cathedrals in a city of the living God.

We have claimed a vision where the city is secular and the church is sacred. Where there are the poor and there are the wealthy; there are the powerful and the voiceless; there are the free and the bound; the young and the old. Much of what we proclaim from the pulpit sets up a straw man argument for the continuation of a false dichotomy where some are blessed and some are not.

Christian theologians and preachers alike, the bishops of our churches and deans of our cathedrals, tend to see people as exploiters and exploited. The problem is that those who array themselves against the modern city may actually be striving for contradictory objectives under the same principles of power. The problem with liberation theology applied to the city is that the formerly exploited often use power in the same way as before, becoming the exploiter of the past enemy; a kind of theological and political version of trading places.

If we are to reenter the world and proclaim the city of the living God we must move beyond the theologies that have given us the modern era with its lack of meaning, moral relativism, and disconnected virtue.

We must reengage a proclamation of the Gospel within the city. If we are to claim the Cathedral immersed in the city of the living God we are going to have to see this as a very real, incarnational mission, that engages the world, the civic society, and the political order, in a constructive conversation and interaction which is free from some imaginary ecclesial ideal built upon the Constantinian model of church or a misconstrued an misappropriated version of a new violent Passover narrative.

If we are to proclaim the city of the living God we must reclaim the God of our ancient narrative. We must give testimony to the Christian narrative that God is community. God - the Trinitarian God – creates and generates the city and all its creatures in a harmonious order which is intrinsic to God’s own being. The God we proclaim is a God who encompasses all difference.

In this manner we learn that to claim our cities as cities of the living God does not mean exporting our version of perfection as Jeff Bridges in Tron points out, it is to go out into the city and meet there the city of God and to meet God in the city.

“This is a counter ontology,” John Milbank, a leading Anglican theologian, writes, “Nothing is evil insofar as it exists, all has been created good. It is only separate from God in terms of its failure to be related to God, to infinite peace, or to exemplify the finite pattern of true desire for God.”

There is no space, or city, that is outside the sacred creation of God. There is no person that is not created good with the capacity to relate to God, to engage in infinite peace, and exemplify in life the desire for God.

If we are to proclaim the city of the living God we must also proclaim, make real in word, the testimony of our God’s salvific act. We are to be prophetic in the world, out narrating the world’s nihilism and emptiness. The God we, as Christians who are uniquely Anglican and unabashedly Episcopalian, proclaim is a God who is incarnated in the earthiness, the fleshness, of the city. We must claim and speak, in word and with words, the powerful transformational message of creation, incarnation, resurrection, and transformation.

The cathedral church must also enact the vision of “paradisal community” at work on every street, in every courtyard, in every corner of the city. The cathedral church has to engage in the proclamation of an exodus from meaninglessness, disconnection and division of the city. We must see the incarnation throughout the city of God speak it and for our own sakes act it.

The cathedral church must engage in the action of following and acting out, making real salvation. The cathedral church must engage in the work of praxis.

Admiration means to express a feeling of wonder, pleasure, or approval. Admiration is the primary mission and ministry of a shrine. The cathedral church must be a place beyond the admiration of music and art and be a community of action seeking out the living risen Lord who is in the community already and at work there. We are out narrating not simply in the word proclaimed but in the peaceable kingdom whose boarders encompass the whole city and not the boundaries of the Cathedral close.

The Cathedral and its Episcopal Faith become the “`Entire practice’ of signs, images, and actions with nothing in isolation…fundamentally a “performative” faith of the imagined and acted out incarnation.

The Cathedral church in the midst of the city of the living God will have to be gentle and meek as it steps out of the shadow of its shrine to a church which does not exist any longer. The Cathedral church will have to mourn with all sorts and conditions of people. The Cathedral church will have to proclaim in word the commandments of our God: to love neighbor as Jesus loved us. The Cathedral church will have to show mercy as Jesus shows mercy. And, the Cathedral church will have to seek a non-violent immersion with the world outside its walls no matter how persecuted it may be..

We must be fearless in taking our place in the public square throwing aside the notion that religion and faith is a private matter. Through invitation, partnership, and participation we must reclaim the streets and public places and spaces as venues for liturgy and life of the Cathedral beyond the close.

It is true that for some the city may always be a symbol of evil, corruption, and decay. But for others, and especially for the Episcopal Church, the city is a symbol of life, human cooperation, human potential, the ever expanding family of God, and corporate salvation. Our cities are cities of the living God.

Bless you and welcome. I bless you in your time with us. Enjoy the hospitality of our cathedral and share in the goodness of your successes. May God who gives you the will to do these things give you the imagination, wisdom, strength, and power to perform them in the name of Jesus Christ.

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  • "Christianity is not a theory or speculation, but a life; not a philosophy of life, but a life and a living process." Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • "Most people are willing to take the Sermon on the Mount as a flag to sail under, but few will use it as a rudder by which to steer." Oliver Wendell Holmes
  • "Perfection, in a Christian sense, means becoming mature enough to give ourselves to others." Kathleen Norris
  • "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can." John Wesley
  • "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried." G. K. Chesterton
  • "One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans." C. S. Lewis
  • "When we say, 'I love Jesus, but I hate the Church,' we end up losing not only the Church but Jesus too. The challenge is to forgive the Church. This challenge is especially great because the church seldom asks us for forgiveness." Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey
  • "Christians are hard to tolerate; I don't know how Jesus does it." Bono
  • "It's too easy to get caught in our little church subcultures, and the result is that the only younger people we might know are Christians who are already inside the church." Dan Kimball