Friday, April 26, 2013

A Journey of Hope and Christian Spiritual Agnosticism

Donald J. Moore SJ in his work Martin Buber, Prophet of Religious Secularism draws attention to a topic most applicable to these postmodern days, i.e. the history of Christian agnosticism.

Christian agnosticism is rooted ultimately in the incomprehensibility of God. The fourth century heretic Eunomius, similar to present day New Thought pantheism, did not accept this state of incomprehensibility, rather he held, “God does not know his own being any better than we do.” He held that the divine essence is no more manifest to God “than it is to us.” It is a denial of transcendent holiness and the total otherness of God.
Theologians of the Church responded quickly. Basil wrote that an understanding of God is beyond the comprehension of human beings. Faith leads us to an understanding that God is, not what God is. Gregory of Nyssa wrote in his Contra Eunomium that God is beyond name and is ineffable and unspeakable. John Chrysostom most clearly defines Christian agnosticism, “We know God is, but we are ignorant about what God is.” God remains always, “ineffable, unintelligible, invisible, and incomprehensible, beyond the power of human language.”
Later Thomas Aquinas restates the theological tradition of incomprehensibility, “One thing about God remains completely unknown in this life, namely what God is.” The patristic period confronted the paradox of speaking about God established a foundation for Aquinas’ teaching of the analogy of being. It is the underpinning for the well known triplex via, the movement from affirmation through negation to eminence.
The triplex means that I affirm God is good. I deny that God is good like creatures. Then with a sense of divine transcendence, I am conscious, as I affirm and deny that God is good in a mode of being that is infinite and ultimately incomprehensible.
As I read Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light, The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta, it was evident that I was encountering the spirituality of an agnostic saint. We feel her painful spiritual agnosticism as she writes to her spiritual director, “Now Father-since 49 or 50- this terrible sense of loss-this untold darkness-this loneliness-this continual longing for God-which gives me that pain deep down in my heart-Darkness is such that I really do not see-neither with my mind nor with my reason-The place of God in my soul is blank-There is no God in me.”
In her spiritual journey her spiritual directors counsel her on the spirituality of the dark night of the soul and the via negative. In a sense, this advice is based on spiritual perspectives that are really expressions of a Christian agnostic spirituality where we enter into the darkness of an incomprehensible mystery.
It is in the mystery of the darkness, the nothingness and the hidden God where Mother Teresa finds Jesus, “I have nothing to say, but that I wonder at His great humility and my smallness-nothingness-I believe this is where Jesus and I meet-he is everything to me-and I-His own little one-so helpless so empty so small.”
When I am in spiritual conversations with fellow priest and leading small group conversations on spirituality, everyone seems to identify quickly with the topic of being in and out of periods of spiritual agnosticism. It just seems to make sense that these days more than ever we have this triplex where we pursue God, we touch God, and we lose God. Then we start again, but each time we touch we discover a reality that is deeper and more transcendent. As days pass and the pursuit continues, we realize the mystery has been the existential pursuit of the God who appears and then hides.
A William McVey

Friday, April 19, 2013

Terrorists are Bullies and Bullies are Terrorists.

As if you didn’t know, the definition of terrorism is, “The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an on organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or government, often for ideological or political reasons.”  The definition of bullying is, “the physical or verbal abuse, repeated over time, and involving a power imbalance.”  Not much difference!  Terrorists are bullies and bullies are terrorists.  The bomb-makers in Boston, a basketball coach at Rutgers, or a rogue nation rattling a nuclear sword, all fit the definitions.  Countless news stories, editorials, speeches, and sermons have been and will be devoted to these tragic and devastating behaviors.

In light of all of the above it might seem trivial to highlight similar behaviors in the Church.  Nevertheless, this blog holds up hope for the future of the Episcopal Church by facilitating consideration and discussion of issues that must be addressed if we are to go forward.  It is sad, but we need to be honest – the Church is also afflicted by bullies.

Congregants (parishioners) go beyond the realm of reasonableness when they threaten the rector (pastor) with stopping their pledge, which is common, to lying about the professional and personal life of the clergy.  It is reported in several denominations, including our own, that more than one-third of all clergy moves are the result of being fired or forced out by “lay-popes;” which is just another name for a bully.  More then a few senior wardens have placed a severance check and a resignation letter in front of a rector.  “Sign this or we’ll fire you and see to it you will never be employed in a parish again.”  One clergyperson report a huge symbol burned into his front lawn as a way to break his spirit.  Clergy have been sued as a way to force a resignation.  And even when clergy move it has been documented that “clergy-killers” have traveled across the country to poison-the-well in the new place.

On the other hand, clergy can also be abusive, especially toward staff, paid and unpaid.  Many an Altar Guild has experienced ugly behavior by an ordained person in the Sacristy.  Assistant clergy have been publicly ridiculed in order to “keep them in their place.”  Some bishops are unscrupulous in their taking advantage of the ‘imbalance of power’ that permits ending continued employment for rectors that think independently. 

In strategic terms “Anti-Terrorism” is the holistic, defensive, approach to terrorism which seeks to understand the causes and drivers of terrorism. Every major university has such a class by one name or another.

Counter-Terrorism” is the offensive pursuit, prosecution and negation of terrorist activity.  Not so many schools teach this. 

Perhaps it is time as individuals, congregations, schools, communities, and nations to actively counter those who unlawfully use or threatened use of force or violence in our homes, our schools, our churches, and in the world at-large.  How?  Let the discussion begin.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Episcopal Burlesque

Recently I was sent a smartphone camera image from a Maundy Thursday Liturgy. In a provocative scarlet hue, created, I suppose, by a felicitous complex of light, vestment fabrics and tented space, . . . there in this near tangible haze was a casual grouping of our clergy. Given the gauzy hue of the iPhone image, the ambiance appeared to be that of a final glowing moment of release from ceremonial intensity, the Episcopal witness to a satisfactory finish or in liturgy language, Dismissal. In fact, our prelates had just finished washing the feet of some clients from a local medical clinic for indigent folk. The obvious stand out clergy was a bishop arrayed in a deluxe exquisitely fitted cassock with purple cord trim and topped off with a fine draping cape. He had finished himself off with a fine  tiptop, the biretta cap, a playful gesture of traditional  masculine cleric form. From my alien perspective, this most elegant bishop compared superlatively and in fact in superior array to Pope Francis, himself earlier in proximity to and washing some young Italian ladies’ feet at a Rome prison. (Perhaps someday as a gesture of humility, he will invite them to his papal apartment for good wine to view his art collection.)

I could not help but wonder what it must have been like and tried to put myself in the shoeless feet of a clinic client on Maundy Thursday as our  senior prelates explained and conducted this most eccentric ancient Christian rite of feet washing. As I became immersed in my fantasy, I wondered, “Well, okay, do I get a little something for this. . . whatever it is?” Or, “Well, I guess, okay, if it makes ‘em happy and I still get to get my teeth cleaned. .”   And then, “I know what they told me, but what the hell is this and guess I oughta be nice!” “Washing my feet, . .  really!? Have at it.” “What the hell is he doing in that outfit?”

In another foot play narrative, a friend of mine went to a Eucharist where the priest preached about the girl who lathed Jesus’ feet with some nard, the biblical stuff, the ointment, the expensive oil. (Check out references in Wikipedia; my cats go crazy for it. . . ) Anyway, this girl gets all devotional, so the story goes, and lathers up Jesus’s feet in front of God and everybody at the dinner party. (Personally I just have no reference for this whole thing but have seen stuff on television in dance bar scenes that give me some idea. . . ) The preacher stated that the big deal was the young woman had to finance her nard purchase by dipping into her dowry. Well, could I see some kid trying to get money out of a trust fund for nard?  Then, I thought, well, the dowry is supposed to go to the guy she is to marry not herl! Now how was she going to go to the trustee, daddy, I would think, get permission to nard up Jesus and still have a little something to finance the wedding contract?

Now I gotta tell you, the preacher has a PhD, really. . . . The old fashioned name for this sort of biblical analysis of putting interpretation into the biblical text for what you want to get out is eisegesis. So here we get a MDiv/PhD, telling a story which is really his weird thing and calling it,  “Preaching The Gospel.”  Well, it is sort of sexy and fun but, well, it ain’t Bible exposition. . .

Back to feet washing. . . You know, it is just plain weird in today’s world. When the Church does it,  whether with Pope, pomp or party time in ritual and homily, washing folks’ feet, well, unless you are too sick to bathe yourself, it’s just weird. . . unless you get it done, drunk in a sailor’s bar. . .  

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Doubting Thomas

This Sunday I have a rare opportunity to preach.  Since I don't do any supply at this point in my retirement, it is a privilege when my Rector asks me to do the homily. So I decided to kill two birds with one stone and submit a shortened version as a blog.

If you have an employee who is always an underachiever, and then one day in a flare of grandiosity the person declares, "from now on out I am going to perform perfectly with 100% productivity," you probably would say, "I'll believe it when I see it." 

"I'll believe it when I see it."  Where did this phrase come from?  Perhaps this notion had is origin in the 17th century when Kepler looked around and discovered that the planets moved around the sun.  Maybe it was Galileo who discovered the telescope in the 16th century.  Or maybe it was Sir Issac Newton who in the 18th century looked at an apple falling from a tree and discovered the law of gravity.  Maybe it came from Charles Darwin who looked at the species in the Galapagos Islands and developed the theory of evolution.  Compositely it was probably all of these and many more who combined to develop the scientific method.

Seeing is believing.  To some extent we are all skeptics.  We like to know what we are getting into.  We are children of the scientific revolution and we often see our world apart from God.  We tend to separate God from life when we engage the everyday activities of commerce, politics, economics, society, marriage and family.  We look around and we make up our minds, even when we are hunting for a church.

It was really no different when the disciples gathered after Jesus resurrection.  When he walked into the room he showed them his hands and his side.  Thomas wasn't there, so when the other disciples told him that they had "seen the Lord," he simply stated in other words that he would "believe it when he saw it."  Thomas the skeptic had to see with his own eyes that it was the risen Lord.  A week later when Thomas put his finger in Jesus' hands and side, he answered, "My Lord and my God!"

For the religious seeker, the skepticism we universally possess can only take us so far.  Ultimately it is a dead end.  So even though none of us as had the privilege of seeing the historic Jesus, some of us believe anyway.  This is what is known as faith.  We believe that Jesus died for us and was raised from the dead as means by which we are reconciled, or made right with God.  We believe this and confirm it whenever we worship and witness to the power of the risen Lord in our lives.

We believe because we have made the spiritual connection between Christ and the world.  By this I mean that we have faith that Christ is embedded in us in our birth, in our life experiences, in our worship; in the very warp and woof of our flesh.  We believe that the risen Lord dwells not only in the cosmic order, but in the plants and the fishes and the animals and deep within the human soul.  This does not come to us in the scientific method.  It comes to us when the Christ who is mythically "up there" becomes the Christ who dwells in us and lives with us intimately every day in every way.  The Christ whom we see as "up there" becomes the Christ who dwells in us every minute of our waking and sleeping life.  This is why we proclaim "alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed.  Alleluia"