Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A Response on Tradition and "Regressive Language"

I like this last paragraph of Jim Littrell's comment below a great deal! What a wonderful vision for God's invitation into community. He writes:
"What I long for is a community of wanderers and wonderers, held together by compassion and faith, joined in some kind of Godly excitement, made safe on the unknown journey by the touch of those with whom I share the journey, and summoned forward by the always transcendent call toward justice and mercy. Digging sewer sludge out of flooded basements, standing firm against massive weapons of cosmic destruction, putting lives on the line for human well being, freeing the oppressed and the prisoners, welcoming the billions of struggling poor into our fortunate plenty--all this defines and exemplifies my imagined community as it wanders. The rest is chaff; or if not, will find a way to serve."
I love this paragraph and want to work towards that idea of a divine community surely.

I offer a word on what is referred in the comments as "regressive language" - and here we may disagree. The Episcopal Church is a Christian Church and while we may wish to find new words and new ways of having conversation around the meaning of our tradition we are also at work dealing with sin int he world. Certainly Paul Tillich worked in this fashion throughout his career. Yet, we cannot hope to affect our communities if we are not willing to talk about our sin and brokenness in very real ways. How can we talk about compassion without forgiveness or redemption? If we are to dig sewer sludge out of flooded basements, stand firm against arsenals, and put our lives on the line for one another we must in my opinion do so through the lens of our tradition. "We should do this for the good of humanity" isn't getting us very far at this moment and hasn't for some time.

I am unabashedly a Christian and an Episcopalian. I would like to reclaim the words redemption, forgiveness, sin, confession, and reign from the past malignancies for I think they speak profoundly to our present condition as a church and as  a society. Our church and leaders have led with racism, sexism, classism, and many other isms. These were sins and in need of naming, confessing, redemption and forgiveness. Whenever I or the church have been remiss or in error we pray that God would correct it. I am certainly not without my faults. And, it is this working on and accepting my own brokenness that is at stake here. It is in the working on these defects that my character is built and I am molded. It is in working on this brokenness that organizations and society is formed. It is working on these things that enables creativity and innovation to flow. So honesty and a reclaiming of these words is important.

From where does the waging of war, the killing of innocents, the persecution of people, the injustice in society, the rich poor gap, the lack of health care, safety, and shelter come from if it is not deeply rooted in humanities ego centered self-absorption which we call sin? Are we to simply say that those things are not good so we should stop? As a Christian Church we speak of God's creation and desire and dream that a different reign be brought about - rather than the reign of man's inhumanity to man. We talk about Jesus' invitation to follow, forgive, heal, reconcile and redeem the world. This is our unabashed Episcopal and Christian witness.

Others may in fact have other words. These are our words. They have meaning for me and for many.

In point of fact when we use our particular vision and vocabulary as Christians, stand against the powers of this world which seek to corrupt and harm God's creatures and creation, and we do so hand in hand with others who use different words but stand for the same just society we are stronger.

Only by losing our particular revelations and words is our character lost, is our voice silenced in the halls of power.

I truly believe as Harvey Cox believes and 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. Cox reminds us of our history and how we have gotten here:

"[Theology] 'projected' its own cramped situation into a statement about God and the [modern] world. Now not only was theology incompetent and uninterested in politics, science, technology and the rest, so was God.  These fields, the faithful were assured, were autonomous realms with their own built-in self-guiding mechanisms. If managed competently by experts skilled in such  matters, they would eventually serve the good of the commonwealth. One had only to be patient, work hard, not meddle in the things one knew nothing about, and - above all - not tear up paving stones. Having been squeezed into a corner by the modern world, theology made a virtue of necessity and wore its own reduced status into the being of the divine."

So it is that we wrote ourselves out of the conversation. The work of a more progressive non traditionally tied vocabulary has led to an abandonment of our tradition and loss of further ground which in effect has left us speechless or maybe even audience-less.

I think that Robert Bella puts it best using the words of Reinhold Neibuhr which I offer here from his essay entitled Habits of the Heart:

"Reinhold Neibuhr, I think, tries to get at that when he contrasts two dangers: secularism, on the one hand, which would simply admit the emptying out of any religious content of culture; and, on the other hand, religious triumphalism that would assert something like a Christian America as we've heard lately from certain quarters. He argues instead for what he calls a religious solution to the problem of religious diversity. 'This solution makes religious and cultural diversity,' Neibuhr writes, 'possible within the presuppositions of a free society, without destroying the religious depth of culture. The solution requires a very high form of religious commitment. It demands that each religion, or each version of a single faith, seek to proclaim its highest insights while yet preserving an humble and contrite recognition of the fact that all actual expressions of religious faith are subject to historical contingency and relativity. Such a recognition creates a spirit of tolerance and makes any religious or cultural movement hesitant to claim official validity for its form of religion or to demand an official monopoly for its cult.'"

I would agree whole heartedly with both Neibuhr and Bella's assertions. Bella continues:

"The point here is as communities, as churches with a strong sense of corporate identity, we enter into the public sphere and speak to our fellow citizens out of our faith, not in some triumphalist claim for special privilege, but also without renouncing the fact that we carry a tradition that is deep and that forms our lives. Neibuhr goes on to say,'Religious toleration through religiously inspired humility and charity, is always a difficult achievement. It requires that religious convictions be sincerely and devoutly held while yet the sinful and finite corruptions of these convictions be humbly acknowledged and the actual fruits of other faiths be generously estimated. Whenever the religious groups of a community are incapable of such humility and charity the national community will be forced to save its unity through either secularism or authoritarianism.'" [Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of its Traditional Defense. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, pp. 134-35, 137-38]"

So yes, humbly I offer, that our tradition actually has something to say of value using the words which not only occur to us but to a great sweeping history of us. And that this particularity within the wider conversation is actually essential for the health and vitality of the public discourse.

I think that the structures that we continue to invest in need to change to free this conversation to happen more adeptly within our mission context.  We pray often:

Gracious Father, we pray for thy holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. Amen.

This is a good prayer for us all, now and as we approach a discussion on the future structure and mission of the church.

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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