Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

JesusHomelessIt’s Holy Saturday, and as a Christian I’m in that strange pause between the abyss of Good Friday and the explosion of the Easter Vigil. I should be thinking about the words of the Creed, “he descended to the dead”, or as the older renditions had it, “he descended into hell”.

The ancient tradition of the Church is that during the time of his death, Jesus offered salvation to all the departed who had come before him. Orthodox icons of the Resurrection show him trampling the gates of hell, pulling up a frightened and diffident Adam and Eve by their wrists.

There is so much more I could say about that, but what I’ve been thinking about, yesterday and today, is how Jesus was guilty and deserved to die.

Christian theology has always emphasized that Jesus was sinless and did no wrong. He was tempted and did not yield; he carried out the will of his Father, but humankind rejected what he offered. The crucifixion was a rejection of divine love, the ultimate horror, injustice to Jesus as man, blasphemy to Jesus as God.

From the point of view of Easter, the point of view of the Resurrection and Ascension, that is of course correct. But it helps me also to look at Jesus from the point of view of those who condemned and executed him.

He came from Galilee–the armpit of a province that the Romans considered the armpit of the Empire. He was yet another itinerant preacher and healer and miracle-worker–or was he? He gathered larger crowds than usual. He was rumored to be connected to the old royal line, descended from David–unlike the Herodians. At least some of his followers wanted to make him king, which would have been a direct challenge to Roman authority. All this peace and love talk, healing the sick, eating with outcasts, breaking down the divisions that keep a society functioning properly, could be a cover for something more.

Then one day this Jesus enters Jerusalem in a sort of triumphal procession. People are acclaiming him as Son of David and King of Israel. Then he’s in the Temple, throwing around a whip, tipping over tables, interrupting the lawful commerce, and saying things about destroying and rebuilding the Temple. Hadn’t they just done that? Hadn’t Herod just finished restoring the Temple that had been desecrated by Antiochus and re-dedicated by the Maccabees? Worst of all, the Roman governor was actually in the city, having come with his soldiers to keep a close eye on things during Passover.

What you have to remember is, first, the Palestine of Jesus’ day was an occupied country, ruled by the Romans with some collaboration from the Jewish religious and political authorities; and second, that the Temple in Jerusalem was not just the religious center of the country, but the political and financial center as well. Jesus threw his own tickertape parade, then walked in and set off a bomb in a location that was the White House, the World Trade Center, and the Vatican all in one. He was obviously dangerous.

In John’s Gospel, Caiaphas the high priest says, “It is expedient that one man should die for the people.” John connects that to the saving nature of Jesus’ death, but Caiaphas also meant, I think, that it was better for them to turn over a dodgy popular figure to the Romans–however popular he was–than to give the Romans any pretext for military action. Better to get Jesus crucified and safely out of the way than to risk Roman soldiers marching through the holy city, killing everyone in sight. Whatever this man is teaching, it’s too dangerous, too volatile. Get him off the scene.

John’s Gospel, and to a lesser extent the Synoptic Gospels, also present the Roman governor Pilate as doing everything he can to avoid executing Jesus. Frankly, this just doesn’t jibe with what we know of Pilate historically. He was a fairly brutal governor who would no more have thought twice about executing a possible insurrectionist than he would about swatting a fly that was biting him. If someone was willing to testify convincingly that Jesus claimed the old Judaean monarchy, Pilate no doubt executed the man with a clear conscience. He was protecting the interests of the Empire and of the locality.

I don’t think Jesus was a terrorist, a zealot, as a recent book has argued. I think the Gospels are fairly reliable about what he did and taught. And I think that what he did and taught, as the Gospels show it to us, is plenty threatening to occupying armies, political collaborators, governments that want to keep the peace at all costs. He ignored the distinctions between men and women, Jews and Gentiles, pure and impure. He healed and ate with people without checking their bona fides. He counseled neither resisting oppression nor submitting, but rather subverting it. He encouraged people to think of themselves as more than worthless peasants, cogs in the machine, drudges in the field, commodities to be exploited. He questioned rules and regulations and dared people to look at their motivations, their beliefs, their inner dispositions.

I have no doubt that the same self-styled Christians who oppose gay marriage, who want women out of the workforce, who affirm capitalism as a God-given economic system, who think the poor deserve their poverty and the rich their wealth, would be standing right next to Annas and Caiaphas recommending that Jesus be crucified. These are the same people who were offended by a statue of Jesus as a homeless man, sleeping on a bench–the same Jesus who said of himself that he had nowhere to lay his head. They have forgotten, if they ever knew, that they worship a homeless man who was executed as a terrorist.

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I am an Episcopalian because for me, the Incarnation is the point.

The Incarnation took center stage in Anglican theology pretty early and has never really left it. It is the Anglican specialty, the doctrine we emphasize above all others, the key that unlocks the code, the tonic of the great symphony that is the Christian worldview. God became a human being; he didn’t just *pretend* to be one, he didn’t disguise himself as a mortal the way, for example, the Greek gods sometimes did, he really became one, a particular person, a boy his parents called Jesus. He got hungry and thirsty, sweaty and tired. He needed to sleep and eat and move his bowels. And he enjoyed real pleasures, too, which we know because a lot of people disapproved of how he went to wild parties and ate and drank with prostitutes and Vichy tax collectors and even, possibly, Gentiles.

God became a human being. The Word became flesh, as John’s Gospel puts it. The Logos, the divine principle of order and meaning, the Logic of the universe, became flesh, a historical, contingent, finite person, a mind wedded to matter.  Theologians hammered out that the Divine Person did not merely inhabit a human physical shell, but had a human mind, a human soul, a human selfhood. The Word whose speaking created all things limited itself to one human language, with perhaps a smattering of a couple others; to what a peasant in a Roman-occupied country in the early days of the Roman Empire could know about mathematics, geography, science, history, and all the provinces of human knowledge. The Word that tells us our stories became a character in *our* story, became a story that we tell. Divinity, meaning, truth, love are embodied eternally in human experience and in the world of matter.

If this sounds like the most important idea in the world to you, then you just might be an Anglican. (Sorry, Mr. Foxworthy. Everybody knows I’m stealing your shtick, here.) For me, the Incarnation makes sense of everything else in Christian theology. If Jesus is not both really, genuinely, completely human, no fooling, and really, truly, genuinely GOD, then his teachings don’t much matter, and even his death and resurrection don’t much matter.

I’m aware that most of Christian theology has counted the Resurrection as the single most important act of God in Jesus, and that most theologians have worked on the assumption that the Incarnation was necessitated by human sinfulness. The Son of God had to atone for our sinfulness, he had to die to do so, therefore he had to become human, therefore Christmas (and a brief period of rejoicing before we start talking about SIN and THE CROSS).

But at least since I was a teenager, I have read that the other way around. God wanted to make humans partners in divinity, therefore he had to become human, therefore he had to be born, therefore he would also have to die, but human beings screwed things up, so he had to die the hard way. The Incarnation was always Plan A because the taking of humankind into the Godhead was always Plan A. For all of us. For the entire human race. Therefore we have repentance and change our lives because we made God’s work and our eventual divinization  A HELL OF A LOT HARDER than it needed to be, but even during Lent and Holy Week we rejoice because God’s passionate unconditional love considers us worth the trouble.

And that’s why I’m an Episcopalian.

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O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.

O King of the nations, and their desire, you are
the cornerstone makes us both one: 
Come, and save the creature which you fashioned from clay.

The reason why God came into the world as a human being, as Jesus, was to make one that which was divided in two. This is the absolute bottom line of theology.

He came to make one the creature and the Creator, separated by their natures, separated further by the creature’s sin.

He came to join together Jew and Gentile, to break down the most basic, the most unshakable division of the culture in which he was born, a division even more fundamental that the division of male and female. The Jews were a peculiar people, a race set apart; the function of many of the commandments in the Torah, of the laws about diet and clothing and what to sow and how to reap, was simply to separate the Jewish people from the nations around them, to make them *different*, and to remind them that what is different, like the wool of an animal and the linen spun from a plant, must always be kept separate.

He came, Paul boldly tells us, to erase the divisions of Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free. I submit that if Paul had had the concepts in his world, the words in his vocabulary, he would have added that Jesus came to erase the division of gay and straight, black and white, cisgender and transgender.

He came to unite heaven and earth, and to cure the most fundamental division of all, the one that lies deep inside each of us, between the clay of the earth from which we were formed and the breath of God’s life that was breathed into us.

It is my belief that no rule, no cult, no practice, no morality which relies on separation, division, and exclusion can be part of the way of Jesus, the Cornerstone, the unifier.

We democratic Americans are apt to think of a king as something we got rid of a long time ago, and good riddance, for all that people read tabloid articles about the British monarchy as fervently as about the Kardashians (and the Windsors, after all, have been famous for a good deal longer). A king is a useless object that sits on top of the heap of hierarchy and claims everything as his own.

My wanderings in the forest of druidry, my attempts to learn something about the ways of my pre-Christian ancestors, have given me a somewhat different model of a king, as the one who is not the top, but the center. In the great mead-hall of Tara, the high king of Ireland sat in state with his attendants about him, and at the four quarters of the hall, the lesser kings of the four provinces and their attendants, and everyone in their ordered ranks, with the fires burning. When chaos threatened, as in the nights of Samhain, the doors would be shut, and the order of the court about the king kept safe the order of the realm.

The Rex Gentium, the King of Nations who is their secret desire, is the king at the center, not at the top. Thus in the book of Revelation, the Lamb is upon the throne, with the four living creatures about him and the twenty-four elders encircling him, and the whole heavenly court with all its myriads of angels enclosed in a golden city which is a perfect cube. Christ is the cornerstone.

Come, and save the creature you fashioned from clay.

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I stand with Doubting Thomas.

Today is the feast day of St. Thomas the Apostle. The Gospels call him Thomas Didymus, “the Twin”; tradition calls him Doubting Thomas. The Gospel of John gives us the story that is read pretty much every year on the Second Sunday of Easter, Low Sunday, first after Easter Day–how he refused to believe that his fellow disciples had seen Jesus unless he, too, got to see Jesus, and not only see him, but touch him and verify his wounds.

I stand with Thomas, who was not there the first time Jesus appeared to all the disciples together. I stand with his desire to do what the others had no doubt already done: Seen Jesus, heard him, touched him, perhaps embraced him. He told Mary Magdalene not to cling to him, but later he told Thomas explicitly to touch him. And Thomas did.

I stand with Thomas, who asked awkward questions, who stood by Jesus even when he was certain it meant death. I stand with Thomas, who wanted his own experience of the Lord, his own relationship with Jesus, who was not content to rely on hearsay. I stand with Thomas, who wanted to verify that the Risen Lord was also the Crucified One, who demanded to see the holes the nails left and the wound made by a Roman spear.

I stand with Thomas, whom the Gnostics claimed for their own, in whose name one of the earliest Gospels was written, and to whom Christians in India trace their faith tradition. I stand with Thomas, who wanted not only to see Jesus and hear Jesus, but to touch him and perhaps even smell him and taste him. I stand with Thomas, who trusted his own senses, who was willing to give his heart only to Jesus.

“Blessed are they who have not seen yet have believed,” says the Gospel of John, and for centuries people have been encouraged to believe without experience, without relationship, without seeing the wounds of the Risen Lord and touching them in their own lives, and belief has slowly slipped along the scale from trust and faith to idea and opinion, and people have grown hungry and thirsty for God, rigid in “belief”, afraid in their hearts. I stand with Thomas, who tells us that the Lord who conquered death and passed through closed doors to eat and drink with his friends can pass through the doors of history and frozen beliefs to call us by name and invite us to touch his wounds.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the Apocalypse. That’s what you’re supposed to do during Advent, right? Think about the four last things, death judgment heaven and hell, and about the end of everything. The Daily Office readings for the past two weeks have encouraged this line of thought: from the Old Testament, the fierce denunciations of Amos, promising retribution to a self-indulgent society that exploits the poor for its own pleasures; from the New Testament, the letters to the seven churches that open John’s Revelations; and from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’s predictions of the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem.

The Scriptures are pretty clear and consistent in teaching that God is going to manifest his will for creation in a decisive way that involves cleaning up messes, putting things to rights, permanently dethroning those who have abused power, and getting everything the way he wants it. This decisive action, which may look pretty violent, is going to be the end of the world we know, but also the beginning of something very new. I don’t see how one can be a Christian and not take this teaching seriously.

But the doctrine of the Apocalypse, the unveiling of God’s will for creation, the end of the old broken world and the beginning of a new one, is kind of out of favor right now. On the one hand, there are large segments of the Church, particularly in American Evangelical Christianity, that are obsessed with it, to the exclusion of everything but abortion and homosexuality (which are apparently going to bring about the Apocalypse). On the other hand, I think there are large segments of the Church that are embarrassed by their brethren’s over-emphasis on the doctrine and prefer not to talk about it. Apocalypse? what’s that? That’s just something from a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode; averting the Apocalypse is what Buffy and her friends did on a weekly basis.

In his 2012 book Apocalypse Not, pagan and occultist John Michael Greer makes the case that the Apocalypse meme, as he calls it, derives from the Persian priest Zoroaster, who looked at the myths of cosmic regime change represented by the precession of the equinoxes and decided there would be a final, decisive cosmic change, in which the good god of light would prevail over the evil god of darkness and there would be no change. Greer sees the Apocalypse meme as an inherently punitive one; the believer in Apocalypse looks at the world and anticipates the day when everyone who doesn’t think, believe, feel, act like him will be punished, dramatically. He also points out that if Jesus was, as many scholars think, predicting the end of Jerusalem and the Temple in his apocalyptic prophecies, then he is in the very small group of seers whose predictions have verifiably come true.

My understanding of the Apocalypse, and of the four last things, does not require me to gloat over the torments of people who come out on the wrong side of the final battle. What has helped me lately to sort out my thinking on the end of the world is some works of fiction: The Last Battle, the final Narnia book by C.S. Lewis, and the Young Wizards series by Diane Duane.

The Last Battle is Lewis’s Narnian Apocalypse. In the previous book, The Magician’s Nephew, we saw Narnia created; now we see it destroyed. There is corruption and abuse of power; there is personal and social evil which must be resisted, even opposed with force of arms. But there is also the sense that Narnia’s time has simply run out. It was not meant to last forever. And in a sense, it will last forever as part of Aslan’s Country, the heaven into which the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve enter through their experience of Narnia. Narnia is a region in heaven just as England is, a dimension of God’s love and knowledge of creation.

Duane’s Young Wizards series comes at the issue of beginnings and endings from a partly mythic, partly scientific point of view. In Duane’s universe, the central moral issue is entropy. The universe does not contain enough energy to last forever; every action, every reaction, every transaction causes a loss of energy to the total system. Some things, however, cause a greater loss of energy than others, and thus further entropy. Cruelty, greed, indifference speed up the eventual heat-death of the universe. Kindness, compassion, helping slow it down and put it off.

Duane’s wizards are specialists in slowing down entropy by helping others. Their magic works with the actual physics of the universe and consists, to a great extent, of formal and informal persuasion, often of entities that ordinary people assume are insentient (such as locks on doors, old automobiles, and electronics made in Japan). But their work brings them into direct, often deadly conflict with the being who invented entropy in the first place, the one they call the Lone Power.  The Lone Power (who bears a remarkable resemblance to Benedict Cumberbatch in physical manifestation) is the angelic being who introduced death and entropy into the cosmos, and he continues to peddle his inventions like a sort of travelling salesman, showing up whenever a species achieves the threshold of moral choice.

The universe of the Young Wizards is one very, very like our own, with the same sort of problems, the same sort of moral choices. And it’s a universe that’s slowly running down, like a wind-up toy–and so is ours. While the job of a wizard is to put off that final decay as long as possible, there’s also a glimpse of what will happen when the universe finally dies: The One, and the Powers That Be, and the wizards who have worked with them, will make a new universe without entropy, in which death, pain, suffering, decay, and loss are no longer an integral part of the scheme.

The universe is running out of energy. Our individual lives are running out of time. I won’t live forever, you won’t live forever, and the universe won’t last forever. What happens then? The vacuum of no time, no space, no being, where once was an entropic cosmos? Or the glory which is Heaven, Timeheart, Aslan’s Country? I believe in the Apocalypse because I believe in the latter option. I believe that God will start things over with a new story.

I don’t believe, though, that the end of the world as we know it will necessarily involve God finally strong-arming the human race into believing, submitting, and accepting due punishment. I don’t think the Apocalypse will look like we expect it to any more than the first coming of the Lord looked like it was expected to. And I don’t think the God who entered into a cluster of cells in a girl’s womb, was born in poverty and obscurity, and submitted to public execution is going to turn out to be a merciless bully when the veil is pulled back and his intentions are carried out. It wiil be the end of the world as we don’t know it and never imagined it, what eye hath not seen and ear hath not heard.

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I do not pray that I shall be gifted with my daily bread, but that We, all of us together, shall have enough to eat.

I do not pray that I be forgiven of all my sins and faults, but that together We shall be a community that is forgiven and forgiving – that a mark of our life together be the unconditional forgiving of one another.

I do not pray that God will save me from all trials and temptations – but that He will keep us, His Holy Church on Earth, safe from harm.

via A Beloved Prayer of Radical Community | The Goodness of God.

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The other day I had a nice long blab with my rector, a thing I like to do once in a while. At one point I got round to saying that I was beginning to deal with the concept of sin, repentance, and forgiveness in ways I never had before: I find myself moving from the old laundry list approach, in which sins were ticky-boxes that I never ticked because I never felt like I’d committed them, to a realization that sin means I screwed up; I sincerely fucked up my relationship with God.

Sometime later that day, I realized that I actually do believe in original sin.

I didn’t use to. I’m an Episcopalian, after all; being a Pelagian comes with the territory. Not believing in original sin seemed a lot better than believing people came into the world flawed, believing that there was nothing good about human nature, believing that things like total depravity and predestination to condemnation were an accurate description of human nature and Divine love. Not believing in original sin meant that no matter how much human beings screwed up, we weren’t born losers who were somehow contaminated by the mere fact of being conceived in sexual intercourse and born a hybrid of spirit and matter.

Augustine’s teachings on original sin always sound to me like bad biology leading to bad genetics: Sex is sinful, so being created through sex fucks us up (pun intended). I’m not sure how he thought humans were supposed to reproduce in their pure, unfallen state. Maybe they’d just spit in their palms and shake hands, and that would have been enough.

But as I look at the world around me now, at the age of forty-seven, on the verge of a divorce, very tired and achey some days, I see sin. I see individual sin, and corporate sin, and social sin. I see sexual, commercial, judicial, and environmental sin. I see sin as bigger than any one individual, bigger even than our corrupt institutions. It’s like a warp in the fabric of things.

I see original sin in terms of an environmental metaphor rather than a genetic one, a flaw in nurture rather than nature. Every child born is a naive player walking into a rigged game. Every child born enters a pre-existing structure of racism, sexism, classism, injustice. Every human being enters a world that will reward wrong choices, will warp him or her away from following his true nature, and will tell her that the most fundamental mistake the human mind makes, the decision to see the Self and the Other as separate, not related, is the absolute truth. And individual sinfulness, sinful mindsets, sinful acts, acts that separate the self from the feared Other, from its true nature, and from God, will flow from that context. Because the game is rigged before you place your bet.

Julian of Norwich writes that God told her sin is behovely, or in another manuscript, behovabil.  That’s the least translatable word in all her writings. It might be related to the verb “behoove”. In some way, sin is inevitable; appropriate; an intrinsic part of the picture. Yet she also writes, further along in her book, that sin is unnatural. We were not created under a curse; we were not set up to fail. We are, in fact, created to be the template through which the Second Person of the Trinity expresses itself in creation. And even the fall, the rupture in our consciousness, the crack in the universe, is not without its benefits: Ne hadde the appel taken ben, ne hadde never oure Ladye ben heavene quene. And had not this lovely text been written and preserved, Boris Ord had not written the lovely setting of it which I listen to every year in Advent, smiling.

Therefore we moun singen, “Deo gracias”.

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