Theology

The Joy of Transformation

Texts for contemplation: Matthew 3:1-17; Mark 1:1-11; Luke 3:1-21; John 1:19-34; John 2:1-11

Although we have left behind the celebration of Christmas, liturgically we are still basking in the light of God manifest in human flesh.   This is also the time of Carnival and Mardi Gras.

We tend not to give much thought to this period between Christmas and Ash Wednesday.  We may stop briefly to hear God’s call to the Beloved and speak of God’s love. Yet, We wait to hear the call to repentance till we enter the somber self-reflective desert landscape of Lent.

Epiphany iconWe first hear John the Baptist cry of metanoia, repentance, as we prepare for the joy of Christmas, and we encounter the fiery prophet John the forerunner again as we celebrate the Baptism of Christ at Epiphany.

We are in a moment of enlightenment, of ecstasy or celebration.  The joy of Christmas hasn’t come to an end, not yet.  From Epiphany to Ash Wednesday we continue in that joy through deepened understanding and enlightenment.

God the Father speaks to the Son Jesus of Nazareth as the Spirit confirms and presents this speech, “this is my beloved in whom I’m well pleased.”  These words are spoken to a human being.

The gift given to all through God’s words to Jesus of Nazareth in that moment of the Baptism is something we have to prepare to receive.  John the Baptist proclamation and call to repent calls us to prepare ourselves for the joy of transformation.

In this moment in which God as trinity and God as incarnate in the human Jesus of Nazareth is revealed we also can see God’s love for all humanity and all creation.  In Jesus Christ as the incarnation of God the Son, all humanity and all creation is taken up into that address.  In Jesus of Nazareth, God the Son in human flesh, all humanity is the beloved in whom God is well pleased.  At the Baptism the individual Jesus of Nazareth isn’t the only one addressed, nor is this address addressed to all humanity without the mediation of Jesus of Nazareth.

How do we receive this amazing address and how do we find ourselves able to receive this love?  In some sense Johns preaching and call to repentance, or change of mind, way of thinking, addresses two very human responses to God saying you are my beloved: either we say Well yes of course or no that can’t ever be.  Both actually keep God at bay and at arm’s length.  One with a presumption of relationship the other a refusal of relationship based on an enlarged sense of shame and unworthiness.  Both underlie much pain and are the result of hurt we inflict upon each other as human beings.

This moment of revelation enlighten and manifestation should shake us.  God’s love is intense, it seeks our transformation into who we truly are, beloved of God.

We all have barriers to hearing God’s address to us in and through Jesus of Nazareth.  We must be prepared to receive God in human flesh; we need to prepare ourselves to receive the gift of being beloved of God in Jesus of Nazareth. We prepare to receive this gift in celebration and in joy, not in self-denial and sorrow (these are coming).

Liturgically, it is significant that we hear the call to repentance and God’s address to us as beloved, in a time of celebration and not first in the desert landscape of Lent.

If we are unaware of this season after epiphany and its joy, ecstasy and continued celebration of the incarnation, we may have a primarily negative view of repentance.

There is a place for the being cut to the quick by our human failings and the asceticism of Lent.  However, for us to have the means to thoroughly examine ourselves in Lenten discipline we must also know the joy of being called to repent because we are loved.

The first sign the Jesus performs according the Gospel of John is turning water into wine at the wedding wedding_cana_bulletinat Cana.  In the Gospel of John this follows directly upon Jesus baptism.  Jesus ministry and the reason his disciples and others first believe in him is because of this unnecessary and celebratory act.  Jesus attends a celebration of life and through turning water into wine not only allows the celebration to continue but does so with fine wine, some of the best the steward of the feast has ever tasted.

In this moment between Christmas and Ash Wednesday we are called to be opened to God’s justice and righteousness through celebration, in light.  We celebrate and in that celebration are called to repentance, to the change of mind and heart.  We tur to God not in shame, but the joy of God’s embrace of humanity and all creation in the person Jesus of Nazareth.

Love as insight : The Epiphany

Yesterday was the Epiphany. In the western liturgical calendar we focus on the adoration of the magi. Historically though, two other Gospel events are also celebrated, the Baptism of Jesus of Nazareth in the Jordan by John the Forerunner and the Wedding at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine.  Among the Eastern Orthodox the feast is more commonly known as the Theophany and the focus is on the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. All three events are about enlightenment and God manifesting in human flesh.

Attend to the icons of these events.

adorationEpiphanyBaptism

These events and icons deepen our understanding of the birth of Christ, the Holy Nativity.  Each is a showing forth of God in our midst, and offers enlightenment as we contemplate them.

A hymn for the feast of the Epiphany, “Hastis Herodes impie”, in the Benedictine daily breviary, sets these three events together:

O cruel Herod, why the fear
That Christ has come to take your place;
His Kingdom  is not here below,
Who promises Heaven’s reward.

The Magi saw the star above
They followed it upon the way;
They found the true Light by its light,
And with gifts confessed him as God.

When the Heavenly Lamb descended
Into the rivers crystal waves,
He cleansed in us the dross of sins
Which he himself had never done.

A new revealing of his power:
the water reddened into wine;
Its nature changing in response,
When at his word it was dispensed.

Jesus, all glory be to you
Who has appeared to us this day;
To Father and to Paraclete
Likewise be praise forevermore. Amen

The coming of the magi does show that Jesus wasn’t to replace Herod.  Jesus’ threat to Herod wasn’t that of a rival claimant to being king of this client kingdom of Rome.  The magi aren’t Jewish, yet they come and adore the toddler Jesus as their king, bringing valuable and symbolic gifts.

Epiphany in the western tradition is the day God in human flesh is manifest to the gentiles through the the magi as representatives.  These magi are sometimes called kings because they come to represent the nations of the earth, the rulers of the nation’s paying homage to the one they are created to serve.

The baptism of Christ is also a manifestation. The magi come and recognize in the toddler Jesus an authority and honor and power, in the baptism of Christ we have manifestation of God in Human flesh and God as Trinity, the Father’s voice, the presence of the Spirit and the son as the bodily human person Jesus.

The Wedding at Cana is more obscure, the manifestation in its immediacy is hidden, the light shines forth from this event only in retelling and meditation.  But it is the first sign that Jesus Christ performed according the Gospel of John.  Such an ordinary and small thing to provide wine at a celebration of the wedding of someone who is unknown to us.  Just an ordinary inconsequential human being like all of us. And yet that is where by the urging of Mary, Jesus’ mother, we find a beginning of our enlightenment.

All these events are enlightenment, manifestation.  They are the meeting of heaven and earth.  These all are physical, political, fleshly enlightenment.

They can also easily be misunderstood.

All this is rooted in that God the Son (Word and Wisdom) became flesh and set up tent in our midst.  God in the incarnation has made home in matter  and in our flesh.  Our enlightenment begins in seeing God in human flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew.  We can easily miss that this insight comes from attending to the powerless, the inconsequential and the obscure, and not the powerful and prominent.

God in human flesh reorients our loyalties and priorities.  It always already challenges every political order as partial, relative, and incomplete. It reveals that all powers are to serve Christ but also shows that they always end up serving their own ends, their own attempts at survival and perpetuation.

The transformation, the justice and righteousness, we seek can’t be found in the powers and governments. Rather these powers and governments are in these  manifestations shown to merely be unwilling and often unwitting servants of God. They are in need of continual unsettling and continual call to move towards what they aren’t and can only be as limited historical entities.

God comes as a human being not as a representative of a state, or power, or government.  The path of justice isn’t found in the ordering of power, but in the solidarity of a humanity and physicality joined to God through the person and flesh of Jesus of Nazareth.  Justice is found and shone forth in God’s love for what is deemed by the powerful as lowly, inconsequential, and weak. Justice is found in those that the powerful believe need their help, patronage, and leadership.  It is in this one despised, like the masses of humanity throughout history, that God transforms the world and brings justice; through an announcement and act of love.

Jesus of Nazareth the Beloved is of no consequence or significance. Until the voice from heaven speaks, no one gives any attention to this man from Nazareth and even after that some question what significance this person Jesus can really have.  God doesn’t bring about transformation through the halls of power but through an unknown oppressed human being, whose life goes unregarded by the powerful and educated of his day. This is enlightenment and justice, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ, the Beloved, in whom we, all of humanity and all the cosmos, are one with God.

The Peculiar Household of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit

This reflection is a riff on Ephesians 1:1-14, and is the first post in a series of blog posts whose introduction  can be found here

Ephesians shows us what has been revealed about God’s will. Paul is an apostle within this will of God.  God’s will is that we are in Jesus Christ, joined with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The nature of these relationships is part of the revelation of God’s will. Ephesians conceives of these relations through the analogy of the household.

God is addressed as our Father in the opening verses of Ephesians, yet this “fatherhood” isn’t generic nor due to our being created by God (God as creator at this moment isn’t in view) Rather the Father is father due to the Father’s relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ.  God the Father (our Father) is father of the Lord Jesus Christ.  it is through our relationship to Jesus Christ the Son, that God the Father is our father.

The relation that  is “natural” in God, between Father and Son with the Holy Spirit is in terms of the Father’s relationship to humanity is God’s choice and desire for us.  This is God’s will that we are joined with the Son and thus are, by the Father’s choice, adopted Sons.  Sons here means both those united with and in Jesus Christ, and heirs of the household of God.  We as adopted have an inheritance through the Holy Spirit who is the guarantee of this relationship we have in and through the Son, Jesus Christ.

We may find this masculine language troubling.  We may find ourselves reifying the masculinity of this language and even attributing such reification to the author of Ephesians. Yet , “Paul” makes use of the  household, which in the culture of the time, was always a household of a father whose heir would be the son of the father.  However, we should see (and I think are intended to see) that this household and paternity of God are strange and peculiar.

The peculiarity is that we don’t have only one son.  Adoption for the sake of gaining an heir would have been somewhat commonplace for the time and culture, but the Father’s household doesn’t have only one heir.  All in the household are heirs, sons. We are brought into this peculiar household of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit as sons, being joined to and with the Son.  We are guaranteed this position as sons through and in the Holy Spirit, which seals the inheritance and is through whom we have as the guarantee that we are heirs who will inherit.

But this peculiarity doesn’t end in this multiplicity of heirs and sons (whether male or female, Jew or Greek, bond or free, to remember for a moment Galatians).  It continues as it up ends ‘natural” process of inheritance.  IN the household of God the Father, inheritance comes through the actions of a living father, not a dead father.  And also the adoption comes through the Son (anticipating what is about to be said later on in Ephesians), specifically through the death of the Son and his coming to life again.  It is the passion of Christ  is the means of our adoption as sons.

We are brought into the Household of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit, by God’s willing our identification with Christ which is our adoption as Sons through receiving the Holy Spirit who seals us as wills, and is who is given to us as the guarantee of our inheritance as adopted sons.  This all may seem to masculine, do women become men in this view? (some in the history of Christianity have come to this conclusion?) We shouldn’t cling to tightly to this identity as sons, for we will find that gender and roles that are played can be a bit fluid in this household.

For the moment, we should see here that the Household of God is about an economy of relationships, that in part can be spoken of in terms of the Relationship of God the Father with God the Son, and we speak of God as our Father because through the Holy Spirit we are joined to Jesus Christ the Son and in that union with Christ we are adopted and made sons, that is heirs.  Yet we inherit, not through the death of the Father but but the Fathers being ever living and our life. And even more peculiar our adoption is made possible by the death and subsequent exaltation of the Son.  Oddly enough in the household of God we inherit only through the ongoing life of the Father, yet we are adopted as sons through the death of the Son.

The plan or economy of the household of God, is a peculiar economy, and it is the economy of a relation that is God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, into which we are joined through faith in Jesus Christ.  As we follow “Paul’s” reflection on this household, the peculiarity and strangeness of this economy (plan) and relationship will only grow and multiply.

Re-imagining the Tradition in the face of White Distortions

Transmission of the Tradition and incorporating new groups and peoples into the Body of Christ is a complex process. The second chapter of Ephesians uses a number of mixed metaphors in giving an account of this process, which is ultimately bringing together Jew and Gentile as the church, a living temple.  This process builds a temple of those who weren’t citizens of Israel with those who are citizens.  This building is founded upon the apostles and prophets, but the building is ongoing as the Temple/people of God grows (an organic living building), through the continual addition of peoples.  What Ephesians doesn’t have in view is how human participation might facilitate or muck up this process.  Raymond Aldred’s presentation for NPTS Symposium 2015, Race and Racism, on indigenous reimagining of repentance and conversion, in part demonstrates how the process described in Ephesians was distorted for indigenous peoples.  Aldred’s reimagining I suggest offers a way for the indigenous and any group oppressed by White distortions of the Tradition, embrace the reality of God building the church by incorporating new people into Israel, the Church the Body of Christ.

Aldred’s paper didn’t have in view the ecclesiology of Ephesians, but was attempting an account of repentance, which values indigenous spirituality and experience as able to provide a deepening of Christian theological concepts.  Through valuing of indigenous spirituality and experience and reimagining repentance Aldred liberates the concept from White distortions of repentance and conversion. However given the oppressive distortion of the concepts of conversion and repentance by white Europeans,  I suggest that Aldred’s project is made possible through the divine act of building the Church throughout time and with all peoples as describe in Ephesians.

Aldred offered a reinterpretation and reimagining of repentance for indigenous, specifically Cree, Canadians.  He reinterprets repentance as a decision to turn and embrace the life Creator has provided, have sorrow for a lost identify rejecting the shame put upon indigenous people, and taking responsibility to work towards healing all relationships.  He argues that this reinterpretation fits with traditional and Biblical definitions of repentance that can be summarized as a contrite turning from, sin essential for conversion, and for living out of the day to day Christian life.

A substantial portion of Aldred’s paper gives the historical (some very recent) reasons why this reinterpretation is necessary. When the Newcomers came, these Europeans presented to the indigenous populations an equation of Whiteness and Christianity.   The Newcomers teaching on repentance and conversion was to teach an absolute rejection of indigenous culture based upon the absolute identification of European and Christian.  To my ears Aldred’s indigenous reimagining seems more a retrieval of the true meaning of repentance and conversion and a rejection of the heretical idea that Europeans were the Church, the people of God.  His approach to retrieving repentance for both First Nations and Newcomers, suggests a method for a retrieval of the Tradition after White ideological distortion of the tradition.

Aldred’s “method” in the paper could be stated this way (though he doesn’t so summarize nor even acknowledge a method): Identify what is the Tradition of the Church that was received by the Europeans, Identify the distortion(s) of that Tradition by Whites in their encounter and oppression of those who aren’t white (in this instance the indigenous populations of North America) the reimagining of the traditional categories through retrieval of the Tradition which is also an enculturated expression,  and thus rescues the Tradition from White oppressive distortion.

Ray Aldred’s approach suggests a need to reexamine how we conceive and talk about transmission of the Tradition of the Church through the age of European conquest and colonialism. We often speak of European interpretations of the Tradition as legitimate enculturation that becomes oppressive or illegitimate upon transmitting to other cultures and peoples the Tradition as enculturated by Europeans.  However, what Aldred’s limited account shows is that the situation we find in European colonialism isn’t merely a failure to allow enculturation of the Tradition among those who aren’t European, but a distortion of the received Tradition by the ideology of White Supremacy.

What is this distortion?  In the attempt to assimilate indigenous into Newcomer culture and society, Christianity was used to condemn indigenous culture and lift up Whiteness.  Repentance and conversion is explicitly and at times intentionally distorted for both indigenous and Europeans, through the claim that repentance involves turning away from the entirety of indigenous culture and conversion then is seen as becoming European. As I’ve said being Christian and being White became synonymous.

How does this distortion happen?  This is more than enculturation.  This is an identification of the People of God with being European and White.  This is a subtle but drastic move from enculturation to actual heresy, a misapplication of the understanding of The Church as the people of God and continuation of the Work of God begun with the people of Israel.  To fully trace out this movement is, of course, beyond the scope of this post.  However, prior to this distortion as new peoples were incorporated into the church and received the Tradition it was acknowledged that any people had witness of God in their own culture.  While there were demonic elements in each culture (primarily identified with idols of the god’s of any particular people) as a people converted to Christ and were joined with the people of God the church, there was a process in which the witness of God to people was sought out in the culture.  This process often was fraught with conflict, a well-known example of this is the bringing in the insights of Greek philosophy into the Church and Tradition, opposed by Tertullian by his famous phrase “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem.”

For the Church and the Tradition this process has a twofold necessity.  First the Church and the Tradition it transmits is in continuity with the People of Israel. Paul speaks of this with the metaphor of cultivation in which a branches from one tree are grafted into another tree. Israel is the cultivated domestic olive tree, into which all other people are grafted into through faith in Christ.  Second, while the Church is the continuation of the people of Israel as the people of God, the people of God are no longer a racial, or ethnic or national identity, but a coming together of all peoples through incorporation in Christ.  In this view, no longer can any particular nation, people or race claim to have a special relationship to God based on such identity, only being in Christ makes us members of the Israel of God.  This process was interrupted and distorted by an identification of White and European with being the people of God, the new Israel.

By this misappropriation for themselves of the designation of the New Israel to a particular people, the White race, Europeans, no longer could transmit the Tradition, nor be agents of incorporation into the body of Christ. Thus, reinterpretation, reimagining and retrieval along the lines of Aldred’s reimagining of repentance for indigenous and newcomers in Canada is need across the board if we are to regain some semblance of church and Tradition as Whites.  In part this means accepting that God has been at work, in spite of heresy incorporating peoples into Christ, and aspects of the Tradition have been received even when there is such distortion and great heresy.

Church, (Sex), Family and Tradition

This is an interlude in the series of blog posts on Ecclesiology and human sexuality begun here.

Peter J Leithart recent essay at First Things Sex and Tradition, illustrates my frustration with much conservative thought on sex, sexuality and the family:  it clings tenaciously to Aristotelian/Thomistic metaphysics to critique modern and contemporary metaphysics and does so in defense of monogamy and family.  My difficulty has several facets.  First before St Thomas Aquinas achieved his synthesis of Aristotle and the Tradition of the Church, Aristotle wasn’t seen as an obvious friend of the Tradition.  Second there is the assumption that merely because there are current philosophies and understandings of science that challenge the Tradition, there is no possibility of dialog or analogous Thomistic synthesis between the Tradition and current knowledge and theory.  Third, is that there is the consistent failure to reflect on that in the Church’s history celibacy/virginity was the preferred state and not marriage and biological family.

The Church didn’t reject marriage, family, and sex, but in my reading of the Tradition it doesn’t seem to be as enamored of marriage and family as Modern and contemporary conservative expressions of the tradition are.

In regard to the church and its tradition. Leithart’s conclusion that family is the space that Tradition happens is an odd claim if one looks at the history of the Church.  First, if we take up Irenaeus of Lyon, the place of tradition is the gathered people of God around a bishop,  family isn’t in view at all.  While people with families are certainly participants in this process of passing on the Tradition but it is the Bishop that is the locus of tradition.  Also, the monastic tradition of the church has been transmitted for centuries by celibates, without the aid of family or procreation.  Generally it was familial relations that have often threatened the transmission of the tradition when dioceses and monastic foundations became part of familial inheritance.  If we look at the history of the church monogamous marriage and the biological family wasn’t seen as the locus or seen as necessary for the transmission of the Tradition of the Church and its faith.

This isn’t meant to deny that family can be a place of receiving from the past and even of receiving the faith and the Tradition of the Church.  I’m deeply grateful for my family and its long history of faith, and many of my friends have also so received the Tradition as passed through their family.  However, I would argue that my family was able to pass on the faith to me because it didn’t consider itself to be the locus of tradition and the faith, but rather regarded the people of God, the Church, as that space where I could receive the faith.  My family gave up its primacy in my life and brought me to the gathered people of God, the Church and its sacraments.  At a month old, I was Baptized and joined with people to whom I wasn’t related, and even those to whom I was related in the gathered people of God I first knew them as members of the church and only later in life realized that they were also my second and third cousins.  First, and foremost we were in Christ, members of the household of God, secondarily we were biological family.  For the church, it isn’t biological and familial inheritance that is the locus of the tradition, rather family can become a means for passing on the faith when it brings itself and its children to the people of God as the locus of belonging and reception of the Tradition not based on familial ties and biological descent and inheritance but new birth, which is from God and not human will.

One doesn’t need to have children within a monogamous marriage to understand or have tradition, and certainly the Tradition of the Church is not localized in the biological family unit.  When the biological family dies to itself and makes its union with Christ its primary identity then family is taken up into Christ and can join in being the locus of the transmission of the faith, but it is so because it relativizes biological birth by the spiritual birth of Baptism.  The people of God, created by God’s will and not procreation, is the only locus of the Tradition of the Church.

This study on sexuality and gender through the lense of ecclesiology and the Trinity continues with two posts on Paul’s analogy of the household of God in Epesians one: first post an interpretive riff, second post focusing on the peculiarity of the theme.

NPTS Symposium Race and Racism , Ecclesiology, and a Confession

The opening session of the Symposium for the Theological Interpretation of Scripture, Race and Racism Dr. Love L. Sechrest of Fuller Theological Seminary presented the paper “Enemies, Romans, Pigs, and, Dogs: Loving the Other in the Gospel of Matthew”.  The paper is synthetic drawing together critical race theory “research into the identity and ways of being allies for racial justice” and the Gospel of Matthew’s presentation of enemies and enemy love.   The paper also draws Whites, Blacks and People of Color into a place of meeting around the challenge of enemy love by simultaneously problematising enemy love (or simplistic and mono-logical applications of this clear Gospel mandate) and upholding it by allowing for differing interpretations and applications of what this call to love our enemies means.  This last bit came out more in the discussion of the paper than in the presentation of the paper itself.  In this session both Sechrest’s presentation, in the response by Rev.  Rebecca Gonzales,of the Evangelical Covenant Church, and in the discussion we were invited into a communal space where the tensions and the ambiguities of race, racism, and our attempts to overcome racism could come in contact with the Gospel and the tensions and ambiguities we find in the Gospels themselves, in particular the Gospel of Matthew.

In response to this I feel the need to come out with a confession I’ve been working up to publishing here at Priestly Goth.  I confess my own failure to see the impact and extent of racism as it affects Christianity and Christian institutions.  When in 2004, I, an American Baptist, and, soon to be Episcopal Priest began an ecumenical church plant Church of Jesus Christ Reconciler, we were troubled by the Whiteness of our endeavor.  I argued that the racial segregation of Christians and the denominational divisions were separate issues, saying that the division of Christians among denominations had to be dealt with first.  I don’t remember how strenuously I had to argue this, but I don’t recall much if any resistance to this idea.  We ultimately consoled ourselves that a ministry and church planting vision couldn’t deal with every issue. We were focused on Ecumenism and seeking to heal and move beyond denominational division and separation.

I now look back on that and wonder at how I didn’t see  racial segregation as the more basic division.  More to the point, I wonder at how I didn’t see the racial segregation in Christian institutions in the United States as a sign of a deep ecclesiological heresy.  Though, I know how I couldn’t see it , because I saw racism in Christianity and the Church and racial segregation in congregational and institutional life as something imposed from outside American Christians institutions, rather than as the consequence of an internal distortion of the Gospel and of White Christian ecclesiology.   I failed to see how race and racism was a creation of Europeans as White with Blacks at the bottom of a moral and ontological hierachy with other people of color in a spectrum in between.  This system was  invented to justify enslavement of Africans.  The backing up of this claim I will not go into at the moment, but will only reference James Cone and Willie Jennings (and others).

I confess that in my ministry I put off racism in Christian institutions as secondary, or as something that was merely an external impulse and not of primary concern of the Gospel or of what it means to be church. This was a blindness.  I can account for this blindness but that doesn’t excuse a refusal to address the racist conditions that persist in our Christian institutions, the symptom of which is our continued segregation.

I was encouraged by Sechrest own admission of the difficulty in facing and working towards ending this situation.  She said multiple times as she addressed  questions about dealing with this, that the questions were important but that she didn’t have clear or easy answers.

I have some thoughts of a way I think Whites should approach answering the questions that arise as we face the depth of the failure with which the segregation in our Christian institutions and congregation presents us.  To begin answering this I will speak first from a theological perspective:  I believe it in part  is to recognize that the segregation represents for Whites an acceptance and perpetuation of an ecclesiological heresy, and as such we need to confess that Whites are the ones who separated from Blacks and people of color.  In our speech and attitudes we need to stop perpetuating the narrative of the black Churches “leaving” and separating from White Churches.  It was Christian Whites who divided themselves off from other humans and Christians, not the other way around.

(Edited, 9/30/2015, primarily for grammar and clarity, content is unchanged)

On a Way Toward an Ecclesial and Trinitarian Exploration of Sexuality and Gender

Since writing this post I’ve written three more posts moving toward an ecclesial and trinitarian understanding of sexuality and gender:

An excursus on Tradition

The Peculiar Household of God an interpretation of the first 14 verses of the Epistle to the Ephesians

Continued thoughts on the Peculiar Household of God

Rowan Williams, in his essay The Body’s Grace , proposes a way forward in thinking about human sexuality that can both hold to the Tradition of the Church and at the same time be open to and affirming of the diversity of human sexuality and gender expression and identity. As I read The Body’s Grace, Williams sees desire and human sexual intimacy as rooted in God’s own desire: “ God’s desire for God” and God’s desire for humanity and creation.  Our sexulaity and our sexual intimacy , or how we view and conduct ourselves as sexual embodied beings, is key to our spiritual development as persons (It is important to note here that celibacy is seen by Williams as a way of being sexual and having sexual intimacy, thus we don’t need to be “sexualy active” to be fully living into our sexual embodiedness.) What I take away from The Body’s Grace  (and this doesn’t exhaust the essay) is that human sexuality and gender expression and identity are bound up in God as Trinity, the Incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, and the actuality of the Ecclesia.

 

In the connection of sexuality to ecclesiology (God’s desire for and being espoused to God’s people) Williams and Traditionalists are making a similar point.  In my own theological reflections on human sexuality and gender identity and inclusion of LGBTQ I’ve generally avoided thinking along the lines of ecclesiology and Trinitarian theology as being directly related to sexuality.  It dawned on me as I read Williams that part of the objection of Traditionalists is their sense that the views of acceptance of LGBTQ abandon the ecclesiological and trinitarian dimensions that can be found in the traditionalist position on marriage.  Another way to say this is that traditionalists often react to a denial that who God is and has revealed God’s self to be has consequences for the meaning of our sexuality and gender.  Further more ,traditionalists also are concerned that we who seek to be open to and affirming of LGBTQ tend to shy away from Trinitarian language (and the specific Name, Father Son and Holy Spirit) and high Christology.

 

Thus the downside of The Body’s Grace is that, although thinking in terms of Trinity, Christology and Ecclesiology, Williams avoids specifically trinitarian language and names. For instances he says “God’s desire for God” rather than the more directly trinitarian (and Johannine) “The Father’s desire for the Son.”  While Williams is clearly aiming at many of the same things traditionalists are aiming at he consistently stops short of explicitly invoking the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the Incarnation.  Though, it is clear to me that the essay is thoroughly grounded in the Trinity and high Christology and high ecclesiology.  Or if the essay isn’t so grounded I find it to be quite solipsistic in its view of God and otherwise nonsensical.

 

However, whether or not I’ve correctly discerned Williams’ intent, through The Body’s Grace I came to see Trinitarian theology, Christology and ecclesiology as rich soil in which to be open to and affirm a diversity of human sexuality and gender expression.  So, I’m seeking to set out from The  Body’s Grace taking up this traditional language and ecclesial way of speaking about our human sexuality, beginning with the marriage of a man to a woman and its use as imaging God’s desire for God’s people and humanity, and move that into a broader understanding of the diversity of human sexuality.

 

Some might object that doing so is too risky. The risk is that taking this all very seriously will simply reinscribe the same patriarchal and heterosexist place in which we’ve already found ourselves.  For others the risk may be in bringing current conceptions of human sexulaity and gender into these orthodox spaces I will have already begun down a path that has departed from the Faith.  I do not deny these risks. However, in embarking on this risky endeavor I’m enacting another aspect of The Body’s Grace, the riskiness of sexual intimacy and true human and divine encounter.  If one believes God is Trinity, Father Son and Holy Spirit,  that Jesus of Nazareth is the incarnation of the Son, The Word of God and that the Church is the locus (though not the full extent ) of God’s liberating transforming work then this must be risked. And I do trust in and rest in all of the above.  After reading The Body’s Grace I feel I can’t but risk this path.

 

I will begin with a reading of Ephesians along these lines. In doing so I will be looking squarely into (without discarding) “…and God created them male and female…” as well as the gendered and heterosexual images of God’s desire for God’s people.  However, I suggest our starting point be in this regard Paul’s understanding of the mystery of  “ …And for this reason a man shall leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”  What is this mystery why is the marriage of a man and a woman as sacrament? The mystery isn’t’ the union of the two people rather the mystery is what is revealed of Christ and the Church.  But do note that I’m saying this is the beginning.  This is risky and difficult because traditionalists assert it is the beginning, the ending, and the whole story.  I wish to take Paul on his own terms and accept that as revelation and let this trust guide the exploration. This beginning point is to say our sexuality, and sexual and gender identity is an ecclesiological question and thus it is also a christological and Trinitarian question.  So beginning here while accepting the diversity of sexuality and gender identity and expressed as part of our humanity, is then to approach that diversity formed by Orthodox affirmations of God as Father Son and Holy Spirit and of Jesus of Nazareth as the incarnation of the Son.  If you choose to follow this thread this will be a focus for the coming months in Ecclesial Longings.

 

I hope you my readers will engage this journey.  I do not have the end already sketched out, .  You who read this are seeing this exploration in process.  At the beginning of this risky endeavor I have some questions for you my reader:

 

What frightens you about this exploration? What in this exploration is risky for you?

 

What in the above sketch of our journey excites you or pulls at your heart?
Do you have suggestions of books and authors I should be reading and consulting?  Who should be our companions on this way?  I’m especially looking for voices that may be from the margins as well as mainstream voices.  Also, are there commentators on the book of Ephesians that I should be consulting as I take us on this journey?

The Intellectual Life of Bonhoeffer: A review of Strange Glory

A Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh brings to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s biography some previously unknown tidbits, and a well-documented and academic account of Dietrich Bonhoeffer the theologian.  The work is thoroughly documented and has extensive footnotes and bibliography.  If one is looking for a place to begin some research into the life and or ideas of Bonhoeffer, this biography is a great resource.  If , however, one is looking for a biography of Bonhoeffer that is engaging and a good read, as with many academic oriented writings, Strange Glory isn’t such a biography.

Strange Glory in keeping with its academic tone and thoroughness focuses upon Bonhoeffer’s intellectual and theological development.  Frequently, Marsh writes extensive summaries of theologians and other intellectuals with whom Bonhoeffer had contact of whom Marsh believes had influence upon Bonhoeffer.  This almost leaves portions of the biography feeling like an intellectual history of early twentieth century Western theologians, intellectuals, and activists. Thanks to this Life I have Marsh’s sense of Bonhoeffer’s place in 20th century Western theology.  Yet I feel this intellectual and academic focus misses a great deal of who Bonhoeffer was.

As Marsh admits Bonhoeffer was not only a person of ideas and intellectual pursuits but a social and extroverted person with many talents, music, sports etc.  Marsh takes little time to show us Bonhoeffer in his social environment, or to give us a sense of what it might have been like, for instance,  for Bonhoeffer to participate in ecumenical conferences just before and during the Kirchenkampf.  There are of course other Life’s of Bonhoeffer that give us these things, it’s just that without them Marsh’s life of Bonhoeffer is dull reading at frequent points.  Informative but dull.

After Reading Strange Glory: a Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I feel ready to delve into the scholarship of Bonhoeffer.  This Life provides a way to ground research into Bonhoeffer’s theology in his development as a theologian and the climate at the time of those writings.  However, I don’t feel I know Bonhoeffer better as a person, nor did I find this life of Bonhoeffer inspiring or moving.  Strange Glory doesn’t even offer new insight nor further reflection on the person of Bonhoeffer.  This is a great resource for those outside of the academy (and Bonhoeffer scholarship) who may want some means to begin their own research into Bonhoeffer and have that research grounded in the sitzen im leben of any particular work of Bonhoeffer’s.  However, if one is looking for inspiration or deeper insight into the person of Dietrich Bonhoeffer there are far better biographies, and if you are willing to slog through a tome Bethge’s biography remains best read in this regard.

Interview with Charles Marsh

Charles Marsh is professor or religious studies at the University of Virginia and the director of The Project on Lived Theology

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

 

Theoldicy and Atonement theories out flanked: A More Christ Like God

Bradley Jersak’s A More Chirstlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel, is an excellent reflection of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ and its meaning for our salvation.  Jersak  sees that we have come to some misunderstandings of God.  The source of this misunderstanding for Jersak is that we’ve been distracted, by a belief that God controls everything even evil, and by theodicy that attempt to rescue God from being the monster God becomes when God’s being all-powerful means God causes evil, and by our theories of the Atonement.

For the most part I found myself cheering as I read, as Jersak deftly identifies some of the prominent problems in current Evangelicalism and with Calvinism and Fundamentalism, by showing how they don’t line up with the tried and faithful interpretation of Scripture that begins with Christ and reads all Scripture in light of Christ being the full revelation of God, “If you have seen me(Jesus of Nazareth) you have seen the Father.”  At moment’s I’d use slightly different language and I’d have preferred a more robust articulation of the nature of metaphorical language and how it functions, but in the end Jersak offers a needed corrective to much that seeks to pass itself off as the guardian of the ‘truth” or for “orthodoxy” or “Christianity”  Jersak is no guardian of truth, but seeks to present a truth about God that needs no hedges or fences around it to keep it safe.

For some (unfortunately perhaps many) Jersaks presentation of God as revealed fully in Jesus Nazareth the Christ, will seem strange and new.  In a time and culture where recoveries of the Faith Once delivered to the saints soled to us as new, Jersak readily admits this is no new discovery.  I appreciate  that he is also able to speak of things that have a long history in the Mind of Church in fresh ways, that show that the “orthodoxy” he is presenting is deeply life-giving and grounded in traditional affirmations of God as Trinity and of the Son’s incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth, and Jesus Christ;s life death and Resurrection.

In a couple of places I feel Jersak stumbles in his presentation.  At times he seems to use metaphor as secondary way of knowing about God and God in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.  Thus, things he has difficulty squaring with his presentation of the more Christlike god, have to do with that we’ve taken literally what was to be taken metaphorically.  However, he seems to think that there can be literal speech about God.  While I appreciate his language of consent and participation, he doesn’t seem to acknowledge that even those terms are problematic “literally” when speaking of God.  Jersak advises a humility in our speech about God, yet stops short of saying that even his presentation is itself subject to the same negation and affirmation as the presentations of God with which he struggles. Jersak rightly calls to our attention that we must pay careful attention to who Jesus Christ is presented to be in the Gospels for Jesus was God’s full revelation of God’s self, what Jersak never says is that that revelation also keeps us from speaking about God, it also hides God.  Understanding the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is key, it however does not allow us to speak “literally” or directly about God.  In a sense all speech about God even Jersaks wonderful and deeply helpful book are metaphorical.

In the end, the book fizzled out for me as Jersak concludes his book with he presentation of The Gospel in Chairs: the Beautiful Gospel, which was first developed by the Orthodox priest Father Anthony Carbo. While I understand why Jersak concludes the book in this way : He wants to offer a way for people to communicate and pass on what he ha presented in the book that he has found helpful and that touches people. However, I had the same feeling I have always had with the Four Spiritual Laws:  Its problem is why its so useful, it is oversimplified.

Overall though A More Christlike God should be read by any who have ever been troubled by certain Evangelical and Calvinist presentations of a God who is in control and whose wrath and anger would come down on you except for Jesus stepping in.  I hope any who have been so troubled will then be able to see that they were correct to be troubled because who God has revealed God self to be in Jesus Christ contradicts those troubling idols.

Interview of Jersak by Peter Enns

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.