Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Recovering the Commons, Part III: Occupying Advent

“And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.”

In my previous posts published at The Episcopal CafĂ© here and here I began teasing out a concern for economy that does not have many takers in our American two-party increasingly unregulated market system. This concern veers both left and right, being concerned for both the personal-local and the social-global. It cannot easily be classified as either Republican or Democrat—indeed, radically criticizes the sycophantic, greedy corporatism of both parties. It cannot readily be classified as capitalist or socialist, noting that each expression has tended to turn over an ever-increasing authority to the state or the state in collusion with transnational corporations to the detriment of freedom that is not merely individual and individualistic, but rather personal-communal-ecological/cosmic and that touches not just on political rights but on economic rights, and indeed, on the rights of our fellow creatures and creation.

Benedictine, Roman, and Anglican Catholics of other times, giants really, such as T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, J.R.R. Tolkein, Dorothy L. Sayers, C.S. Lewis, Hilaire Belloc, F.D. Maurice, Samuel Taylor Coleridge were involved in similar searches, often quite Biblical in their vision, drawing on the positive aspects of Medieval and monastic existence, as well as insights of capitalism and communism to propose third ways that honor the legitimate value in our past scrubbed of romantic notions because lest we forget serfdom actually carried the day for most in other times, that takes care to note what is positive in both markets and the social, and in our time, I dare add ecological.

Their search was deeply rooted in the Incarnation, Holy Communion, the Body of Christ (the Church), and Creation. Almost without fail, a radical and Biblical Christocentric-Trinitarianism pervades their thoughts. And rightly so. A Christian concern for the economies of earth will orient itself to and within the Economy of God as the centering Relationship.

As a poet and theologian who views the world through the lens of radical and Biblical Christocentric-Trinitarianism, I cannot help but follow the lead of my High Church ancestors in faith as I look at the current economic situation, a situation I will dare say is in this moment at odds with the Economy, the Household, of God revealed in Christ Jesus.

Knowingly and unknowingly, the Occupy movement brings this into the open. As Christians, we ignore this to the detriment of our vocation as witnesses to God's Word.

I have read a lot of criticisms of the Occupy movement. Some are more valid than others. Reading between the lines, most of these criticisms tell me that many of us have not yet experienced the full horror of what our current economy can mete out upon us if we fall behind, fall between the cracks, or fall out of the net all together. Indeed, I sit writing this from a heated office, drinking a cup of hot coffee with milk.

Whatever else the Occupy Movement may be, this movement brings into the open and into sharp relief, the brokenness of our economy, an economy that is the expression of how we relate to one another personally-communally-ecologically/cosmically, an economy that commodifies everything and everyone and everybeing:

Resource. Mine. Self. Me. Hoard. Produce. Consume. Job.

This brokenness is not new. Riding CalTrain past US 101 many years ago on my way to my field placement at Stanford, I remember observing the tent cities hidden away beneath the overpasses. But things were good then. For many of us. It was the last years of the Clinton Era. So many didn’t have to pay attention.

Many did not notice where Jesus was at work, where Jesus dwelled, where Jesus was crying out, pitching himself still among those our own worldliness would rather enough forget and doom to the underside and death.

Most of us will not remember or perhaps even know about Hoovervilles. But the Reaganvillages, Clintoncamps, Bushburgs I and II, and Obamavilles have been with and are all about us.

Now that the middle classes and the educated classes themselves are under threat,

Occupy forces us to reevaluate our own dance with worldliness;

Occupy pushes brokenness into the social center, the common ground of the various public plazas, circles, squares, and parks;

We can no longer avoid our mess and complicitness and vulnerability and fragility;

We have to confess that we interdepend on one another and the whole of creation.

Meandmine stepped too near the ledge and fell off on Wall Street. Most of us went along for the ride, participating in ways great and small, failing to notice who was getting bilked and who we’d left behind. The bandages of the past, labor movements and government safety nets and the like, may not be able to put Meandmine back together again.

Even amidst what may be problematic about Occupy, including hints of utopianism, the tents sitting in the midst of us bring a word to us of what has gone ignored for a very long time. And, indeed, as Christians we are called upon to interpret in that word what the Word is saying to us by these bodies pitching their tents among us.

For, as one of us, a creature of earth, God choses to home with us in the Incarnation. God does so because God loves and desires to be with us and all the creatures throughout the far flung cosmos.

God comes to us not as an alien invader, but as One coming to and being with God’s own creation, a creation radically off-kilter, alientated, because we human beings have a tendency to turn everything to our self-interest alone, eschewing the call to be tillers and caregivers and wild-respecters and most of all, reverenters, venerators.

Precisely as one of us, Jesus Christ, God cannot in loving us, help but also enter the depths of this tendency. God liberates us for the good, “by means of Himself,” to quote St. Irenaeus.

And God brings into being a Body who is called to witness to wherever the Word is at work in general society, though hidden, unknown, forgotten, despised, even amidst all of the worldliness—especially our own.

We call this God’s Economy.

So, let’s turn things to God’s Economy, God’s Relating to us, for a moment, a relating that is very much concerned with the beings and being of earth. Indeed, this is unavoidable because we Christians proclaim the Incarnation, Emmanuel, Jesus. In him, precisely because he was conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to play on William Porcher DuBose, every being and all of the cosmos is encompassed potentially, that is, with the promise and hope of the Consummation when God shall be All In All. A promise we receive really in Holy Baptism, not for ourselves, but that as in the Gospel according to St. Mark, we would go forth and proclaim and witness to the Gospel to every kind, to every creature.

God makes home with us, as one of us, a creature of clay, and freely gives to us, sharing with us God’s goodness and bounty and health, just as it was in the beginning when God began to create:

Gift. Share. Us. Work. Create. Forgiveness. Together. Joy.

These are the language of God’s Economy precisely emerging through and with and by the Incarnate One, Jesus Christ, who is the fullness of God’s vision for us as human beings with one another—not just the Church, but all of general societies.

While the media portray the dangers of disease and unruliness of Occupy encampments, what goes uncommented upon is a relational criticism of the status quo, of the unruliness of those who crashed the system and left the rest of us to carry the burden for generations to come, of a growing disparity between the extremely wealthy and the growing poor, of the degradation of earth, of the disease of greed, exploitation, and domination that touches us all.

What I have not heard about in our media is that precisely in Occupy encampments, those who have been without easy access to services, sometimes for years, can find a meal, a bed, a clinic without stigma.

What of the free library at OWS providing reading for those who can no longer accessed our many closing libraries?

I won’t romanticize Occupy, for that is the danger of flitting with utopianism, and I will nevertheless suggest this movement is a strong criticism of the wealthiest nation on earth in our exploits here and abroad. And it is a criticism framed not largely as a series of demands, though they do exist contrary to media claims, but as a collection of tents, a community of bodies.

I do not have easy solutions to the problems of our broken economy, an economy steeped in the vices of self-interest alone.

Perhaps sitting with the brokenness and being with one another is the one thing most needful, learning to:

Gift. Share. Us. Work. Create. Forgiveness. Together. Joy.

This sociality on the level of human beings correlates to God's Economy in refraining from more than need as each requires in her or his body and for sharing of her or his gifts, skills, and talents; being a self-for-with-by-others to accomplish life together, being-in-doing; spacious time; and most of all, being present to one another in our brokenness rather than escaping.

I do,suggest that as we move into Advent, that a season of examination, confession, preparation, refraining, and witness to God’s Economy is appropriate for we who profess Jesus Christ as the One Who Causes To Be, as the One Who Saves—that is, as Lord.

How will you, how will we be occupying Advent?

How will you, how will we Gift, Share, Us, Work, Create, Forgiveness, Together, Joy?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Continuing the Conversation: Grace

Lee, bls, and myself continue the conversation on sin and grace. I note,

bls makes a good point. Perfection-seeking often reinforces addictive behaviors. It is also crippling to the overly scrupulous like myself. The two can go hand in hand. To be able to admit our limitations is healthy and mature Christian spirituality. The saint is one who accepts without self-loathing that she or he is sinner, and paradoxically grace flows from and through that acceptance. And that for some of us, that involves a felt and experienced break with the past. For some of us, it involves a revision of inhabiting a loved universe not as we might wish it but as it is. I think that much of the sharper divisions on matters of sin and grace exist for at least two reasons: 1) particular theologians of great weight experienced sin and grace for and in themselves in particular ways–spiritualities, and write these into their theological musings–it’s unavoidable, 2) others are shaped by these spiritualities as they are enacted in prayer and imbibed in study. This leaves us always in conversation with others’ spiritualities that do or don’t give us full sense of our own experiences of sin and grace. For those who have experienced the surprise of grace in the midst of addiction or perfectionism, those who seek a way or rule of life may come across as reinforcing the very trouble grace is freeing them from. For those who experience the slow steadiness of grace, such folks may seem to be asking for dispensation from a shared way of putting on Christ. As someone who navigates both of these, I want to avoid legalism because it will crush grace, and at the same time not lose a sense of shared discipleship. At the heart of the genius of Anglicanism is a common rule that is meant to lean us encounter the surprise of grace–Common Prayer (see Countryman’s work on Anglicanism and poetry).

I would posit that accepting our dependence on or trust in God (sound familiar) is the cornerstone that leads us into a vision of our shared coinherence as human beings and interdependence on one another and the entire creation. Dependence on our part paradoxically if slowly renews freedom because as Kathryn Tanner reminds us God is not in opposition to our createdness, but releases our createdness to be more itself, including admission of limitations and shortcomings. I would use Luther’s positive insight re: we don’t want to be creatures as the heart of Sin to reframe the famed theosis phrase, “God became human being so that human beings could become divine” to mean precisely not an upwards movement, as in ladder spirituality, but a groundward movement, where admission of and acceptance of dependence on God is the foundation. Divinity or our partaking of divine nature or participation as well as ways of life together are reframed not primarily as moral requirements, but shared ways that support our being more human–more honest with ourselves and others, more able to admit failure and sin, more responsible for ourselves, more generous to others, more caring of creation, etc. In this way, God became human being, so that human beings might be free, more ourselves, human. That is to say, that “divinity” on our “side” of the experience does not look more ethereal, but more earthy.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

A Call for an Ascetical Advent Movement

Lee offered us a post on Pelagius that reminded me that that age-old debate is as complicated as that of Theodore of Mopsuestia—and both may have been unfairly condemned. History gives us space to reassess. We would do well to remember to separate out Pelagius' teachings from what Augustine said Pelagius taught from Pelagianism, just as we would do well to separate out Theodore from Nestorianism. We would also do well to note that what we do know of Pelagius’ teaching in his own words is not very different from that of Orthodox, that is, Eastern Patristic writings on these matters. Now, setting aside that debate for a minute.

Lee’s post reminded me that what is missing from many modern appropriations and reappropriations of Celtic Christianities is a way of life together rooted in a participatory Christocentric Trinitarianism. And of course, that at least something of these Christianities lives on in the Christian expressions of the Isles we have today, and I would argue, especially Anglicanism at our best. And definitely so in the music and poetry and art of the Celtic peoples.

Like the Hebrews, these Christianities value a way of life together lived in response to the creating-liberating God—think Torah. And like the Hebrews, these Christianities do not shy from a world enchanted—yes, animals do speak if we pause to listen; yes, angels grace us if we prepare our hearts with hospitality; yes, Mother Mary and all the Saints and all who have gone before us in faith are not far away but present if we pray; and yes, evil beings walk about looking to destroy flesh beings.

Last year I was a guest lecturer on Indigenous theologies for a course taught by Dr Moses Penumaka, “Theology from the Margins.” My lecture covered a lot, and emphasized those things we call a way of life as intended to keep the people living out of grace and in harmony, what Christians have called asceticism, even as we live in hope when All Shall Be In All and lions shall lie down with lambs—by the way, I take that hope literally. At the close of the conversational lecture, I asked for feedback. A young woman who is a Coptic Christian raised her hand and said, “For the first time in any course at the GTU I feel that someone has understood my tradition, that our ascetical ways exist precisely that we might live out of grace and in harmony with one another and all of creation.”

A Rule of Life in Community and ascetical theology are not primarily about earning or gaining heaven. Rather they are about living out of and in response to Heaven, for Heaven is among us though often unnamed, unknown, forgotten, and even despised. Christian ascetical theologies worth their salt assume Emmanuel, God-With-Us, Jesus Christ at work in the life of not just the Church or general society (i.e., what we often call “the world” which is distinct from worldly), but all of the cosmos creating, redeeming, healing, sustaining, sanctifying. That is, grace is assumed present and active and abounding and ground for our existence at all and for our living good. Human beings living out of this grace, however, is not assumed as evident. We call this the Fall or stepping outside the dance, and it is not merely a back there occurrence, but existential, something in which we personally participate. The Fall touches on us all. Yet grace abounds all the more. By Baptism we receive and participate in Christ, and in Christ by the Spirit, in the Life of the Triune God.

A graced world—a God-With-Us world, nevertheless upended by Sin (and if you don’t think so, read a newspaper) requires shared patterned gospel response on the part of a people called to live in and out of the Harmony of this One, Jesus Christ. This approach assumes the Body as a Community of and within the Head in a way that much Protestant theology rejects, claiming a once-for-all salvation in Christ that often suggests this means that grace need not meet Sin still in our own living out of this once-for-allness. In contrasts, AM Allchin notes that High Church and Anglo-Catholic Anglicans have a participatory soteriology. I might add, that perhaps despite himself the Cranmer of the Prayer Book also does so. Just read Cranmer’s 1549 Eucharistic Prayer. In my writings past, not aware of Allchin’s work on this matter at the time, I called it a gift soteriology. What this means is not that we save ourselves, or that salvation has not been given once-for-all, but rather in Christ we receive this Life as pure gift and participate in and live out of the Life of this One who is our salvation, our healing, our reharmonization as a leavening society and as a people of and friends of the earth, that is, the whole of creation and every creature.

What shall be our shared patterned gospel response together is the question?

Sin is like a hydra. Cut off a head and new ones appear. Which is to say that our response and life is contextual to how it is Sin is operative in me, among us, destroying all creatures.

And so our responses will draw on the wisdom of the Elders of every age, for it is in wisdom that is, a sort of means testing over the long haul, that we learn ways that live Christ.

And “our” is paramount. And where Protestantism runs into trouble. There can be no shared rule of life, for “how dare you tell me what to do,” and where then, a participatory soteriological ascetical theology breaks down. For such a theology is necessarily communal in the One Lord Jesus Christ. What then is lost is means testing over the long haul, for after all we learn new things AND we encounter Sin in changed form, requiring adjustments to our way of life together. Hooker does this similarly be means testing natural law with a common law approach. And what is lost is a shared way of living together that is not about earning salvation but living out of salvation not just pro me or pro nobis but pro mundis.

And in our time poverty and ecological devastation cannot be ignored as how Sin is at work among us. So too, then, must be our shared patterned gospel response.

Which gets us to criticisms lobbed at those who appropriate portions of Celtic Christian spiritualities in a middle class comfortable way. Now, parts of the Celtic traditions run in the familial traditions in my veins. An abiding sense of the aliveness of creation, for example, in which rocks and hills and mountains are not inert but mineral creations of Love meant too to have a name. Rocks sing. I believe this. Or that a raven may speak a word. Yes, I believe this, too. In fact, it is because of God’s Other Book as proclamation of God’s goodness that I as a gay man did not lose my faith when treated harshly by the Church. And so, my own faith cannot divorce the Incarnation from the Creation.

What goes lacking in middle class appropriations is a participatory Christocentric Trinitarianism (read Celtic prayers and you will be struck by their Christ-Trinity focus) and a shared ascetical outlook that is meant to call us to and hold us in harmony, and has extremists, who mind us to our own living and remind us of our utter dependence on God and interdependence on one another and all of creation. Extremists, or elders, however, while always reminding the community to itself should not be confused with the bulk of participants, who nevertheless, lived an outlook based in a prayerful way of life. And hence, we have been bequeathed numerous prayers and prayer-poems and runes of precisely this sort that are common praying.

Which gets me to Advent. Martinmas is coming Nov. 11, marking a time when the season we now know as Advent began not merely as a time of expectant joy for the Nativity, but as a time of expectant preparation for Lord of History to bring all to completion in the Consummation. Advent, like Lent, is a time to reassess our ways, ask about our ways, and wonder if we have any in response to the Incarnation, Jesus Christ. Penitential has become a dirty word not to be applied to Advent. It has also been associated with being anti-body. But penitential is really another way of saying, being off the way, reassessing, turning away from, repenting, and turning to the way again when it is removed from any sense of self-hatred and flesh-hatred. On the contrary, lack of penitence, a failure of ascesis may itself show a hatred of the self, the body, all flesh, and society if our aim is to live out of grace and in harmony, that is, peace, Shalom, holiness with all of life. For example, food is good. But overindulging... Eating animals treated like product... Being comfortable with others not eating... These dishonor and mar bodiliness, both ours, others', and the whole of creation.

So, how are we living out of Christ’s ways as our community has determined this shared pattern of gospel response?

Am I praying daily? Or not? Are we?

What are my buying habits? My habits of heart-mind related to a society based on production and consumption? Ours?

How am I eating in such a way to reverence creatures and creation? Or not? And We?

How am I restraining my own wants so that others’ needs might be filled? And we?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Death, death on a cross...

In the Name of the Father, and of + the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A few days ago Troy Davis was executed in the state of Georgia. I do not claim to know his innocence or guilt. I do know that a great deal of uncertainty surrounded his case. And conservatively speaking such uncertainty should have been enough to grant Troy clemency. And I do know that in these United States men of color inordinately bear the brunt of incarceration and the death penalty. That under conditions of a racist society, the death penalty cannot be but a racist act, an act of desecration.

I know we do not like to speak of encountering God in our white-washed Churches, but as the news announced his execution and broadcast pictures of him, for a moment, a flash, I saw pictures of Troy Davis, and his spectacled face was the face of Christ. And I wept.

Yesterday, Wangari Maathai died. She had championed the planting of nearly 30 million trees to restore her Kenyan homeland. Many women joined Wangari in her work, and planting trees came to also highlight the plight and dignity of women in her country. Wangari did all of this in the face of early scorn and even government opposition. Late did she receive the Nobel prize for her work. In “Redwood Cathedral,” a poem dedicated to her life’s work, the poet tells of an encounter with the Living God among the Redwood forests of Northern California:

I enter the house of your praise
without thought of worship
stumps and needles cense
the heated air in late day
you still even my heart
at columns holding the sky
I touch my lips to rot.

I dip my fingers in decay
forgetting pious decorum
a salamander red-tailed
lingers in the last warm rays
you turn me again to dust
by pillars of silence keeping
I walk your dwelling place.(1)

I know we do not like to speak of encountering God in our sanitized Churches, but in the poet’s telling of smelling sweet decay and kissing rot and delight in a lone salamander, I am awed by a sense of God’s walking among us just as God does in the Garden in Genesis. I do not claim many such encounters for myself. But I do know that in these United States of late capitalism, creatures great and small bear the brunt of our insatiable use that now threatens all life. That under such conditions, to hug a tree destined for mansion-building is laughable, if not heresy.

“Because of the Incarnation, I reverence all remaining manner.” St. John of Damascus wrote these striking words in defense of icons during the struggles over iconoclasm in the Sixth Century. For many of us today, his words may seem outrageous if not outright heretical or even pagan.

Yet, at the heart of the controversy over icons rests this question, Is matter, created existence, made for and to show forth God? That is, in questioning the implications of the Incarnation, the icon, the Incarnation himself is at stake. Is matter, created existence, made to bear, to birth God? And finally, Do we dare hope in the Incarnation fully leavened in every creatures and all of creation, when in all transparency and fullness, God shall be all in all? Do we see? Dare we act as if?(2)

Let me reframe St. John’s maxim for the iconoclasms of our time, among them racism and sexism and ecological devastation: Because God became one of us, human, clay, creature, flesh, matter, Jesus Christ, I reverence every creature and all of creation. I will be so bold to say that in matters of racism and sexism and ecological devastation, the Incarnation is at stake for you and me and us. In the words of 19th Century Anglican theologian, F.D. Maurice, “the Incarnation may be set aside in acts as well as words.”

Maybe it’s easier for us to imagine matter showing forth God in proclamations written on gold leaf backgrounds in vibrant egg tempura strokes of cinnabar and cobalt? And perhaps it’s easier for us to believe that a mother tender and mild, holding an infant, ancient of face and robed in dazzling array, reveals matter bearing forth God? Though perhaps the controversy on Facebook last year over censoring pictures of women breastfeeding suggests otherwise?

Yet to gaze upon the doxa, the glory, the beauty of the Nativity, the Transfiguration, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the Sending of the Spirit without paying attention to the Crucifixion is to finally miss the Person Whom they proclaim: The Word became flesh and dwelled among us all the way.

No, the Incarnation hymn we heard proclaimed from Philippians this morning is itself an icon written with strokes of iron on parchment and meant to be proclaimed as song. Just as with every icon of the Incarnation, this hymn brings us to encounter with a Living Person, God become Human, Jesus Christ. For hear, we encounter the God who so identifies with us as flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone, that in Christ Jesus, God willingly experiences humiliation, enters abandonment, and risks annihilation for you, for me, for us.

Make no mistake, this Incarnational hymn at the heart of St. Paul’s letter to the Church at Philippi contains within it the Personal, that is Christological, seeds of social, cultural, and I dare say, economic and ecological, reorientation and reordering, starting not with general society out there, but with we who sing and hear the hymn, Christ’s own Body.

So, just as we would gaze closely at an icon written in paint, let us listen attentively to a few stanzas of this hymn. Hear and meet again, God’s own Self-Word given to us:

Though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.

This God enters fully into the midst of us as one of us. And God does so not in glorious array and imperial might on clouds of thunder and lightning, but in the words of St. Martin Luther, “There in a stable, without man or maid, lay the Creator of the world.” This Jesus, God’s own Self-Word does not grasp at his divinity, but having identified himself with us as one of us in the flesh, he gives over his Person fully to us. Jesus does not hold back entering into the fullness of human life and experience. And the fullness of God is found as a newborn infant crying in a cave adored by those considered of low or no estate, shepherds, sheep, oxen, donkeys, and chickens.

Oh, the innkeeper had done his best. The inn was full. Full of a questionable crowd, raucous on beer and wine, some women without any other means to support themselves than prostitution, some men thieves and murders taking refuge for the night from the very roads they made unsafe. So a place of quiet and relative safety seemed a gift. Yet, here in the midst of these, a child is born. And for a few moments of calm, at least, the Human One nurses as cattle bend their knee and donkeys bray loud rejoicing and sages sneak in with gifts of kings and angels sing out glorious Peace. But already the Cross looms as Herod slaughters the innocent.

No, this God does not ignore the vicious realities of human existence, of Herodian monstrosities and Caesarly usurpations and the banal, everyday cruelty toward one another and the use of creation for profit and gain. This Jesus is born into particularity, smack dab in the midst of that viciousness, as a slave among a people who have known slavery and live under to the boot of a new Pharaoh, Caesar Augustus. Not a servant as some translations give us. Servant, after all, sounds so genteel and civilized doesn’t it? No, God who is perfect Love, and therefore, perfectly free, comes among us as one without freedom, a slave. A slave, one who unlike the sons into today’s gospel proclamation, is sent out into the vineyards without a choice to break his back in hard labor in scorching heat. A slave, a class deemed of no account in the societies of Jesus’ day, a class deemed without personhood, a class worthy only of supporting the scaffolding of an exploitative economy through daily burdensome labor, and often, through physical, verbal, and sexual abuse at the whim of those who claimed ownership over their lives.

And in the words of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, “by means of Himself,” by means of his very Person, as one in the flesh, as one bound in chains, Jesus binds Godself to us precisely where the most wretched inhumanity to inhumanity shows itself. Indeed, precisely as one whose very treatment and station or lack thereof is representative of humanity gone awry, a humanity of siblings turned against God and one another and all of creation, God becomes one of us. And it is this One enslaved that the hymn dares name human, person. Do you hear a social revolution?

And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death
—even death on a cross.

This God enters fully into the midst of us as one of us, holding back not at all, not fleeing from being body and blood, but experiences himself the most terrible death of torturous suffocation at the hands of the state with only vinegar for comfort and dogs and vultures for company as his body begins to rot alive! Here on a tree, without friend or family, hangs dead the Creator of the world.

The fullness of God is found in this One condemned alongside thieves and murderers, as one of us. Precisely here, surrounded by thieves and highway robbers, this Jesus, muscled by hard labor and long walking, now broken and beaten, of late age at 33, hangs from a cross, an instrument of torture and death for criminals. And it is this One hanged that the hymn dares name human, person. Do you hear a social revolution?

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Christ Jesus is Lord,
to the Glory of God the Father.

Do we imagine still, even now, after all of that, flame orange angels and gold foil? Of triumph and might? To encounter in this hymn God Crucified in the flesh spoils our quick reverie and flight from this life and engagement with all that desecrates.

Again at this Table we shall receive this Lord Jesus in his Body given for you and me and us and his Blood shed for you and me and us. This Jesus, true to the Incarnation, does not run off to the far heavens to bask in the unapproachable light of Godself adulation. But, true to Love’s self-identification with all creatures, by means of his humanity, bends a knee to every creature and speaks a name. Above every name is a Name who surprisingly bends his knee to us.

This Lord Jesus freely shares the dignity of his Person and Name with you, and with you, and with me, with us, and with every creature and the whole of creation. Above every name is a Name who surprisingly confesses us. In Prof Carol Jacobson’s paradoxical completion of St. John Damascene’s words, “Because of the Incarnation, God reverences all remaining matter,” you and you and me and us and every creature and the whole of creation. Amen.

(1) Christopher Evans, “Redwood Cathedral,” Unpublished manuscript.
(2) This emphasis on the Consummation is characteristic of Anglican theology and is reflected in Anglican ascetical theology that we act as if the Consummation were already. Dr. Carol Jacobson in her explorations of eschatology also notes that we are called to act in the subjunctive, as if.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Problematizing the Language of Inclusion and Exclusion as a Singular Hermeneutic for Christian Community

I remember the first time I found myself refused Holy Communion because of being a gay man. It was a deeply painful experience and I lost faith in the Church that day. That faith has recovered only as my faith in Jesus Christ has deepened, my love of the Community even in brokenness and sin has emerged with an honesty that does not brook romantic notions of Church communal life while nevertheless insisting that we can be better, and my sense of self before God has grown even in the face of sometimes mean and unexamined behavior by fellow Christians.

In recent times, the language of inclusion and exclusion has largely been attached to queer persons and our place within the life of the Body of Christ. There are gains and losses with this language.

A central gain is that this language raises awareness within the Body of Christ that not all is well with us, that we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves, that we too are deeply shaped by racism, sexism, ableism, classism, and the like, all of us. And we treat one another in ways we would never wish to be treated ourselves if we were the other both by commission and by omission.

In contrast to this, this language implicitly recognizes that we are quick to point fingers at the world, to claim “counter-cultural” status—a term by the way that I utterly despise because it allows us to fail to note our own cultural shapings and often produces a cultural claim that is the mirror image rather than one more shaped to Jesus Christ and his life for and to us.

We as Church are slow to note how we are ourselves very worldly-shaped and very cultural, claiming a superiority, justification by place and position and traits and accidents of birth, rather than our shared drowning in the watery grave and regenerative womb of Holy Baptism, our being united with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in new birth, our being made able to stand before God in Christ Jesus apart from any work of our own. That we, any of us, could claim a priority of voice for Christ’s Community because of our bio-socio-cultural status is worthy of challenge. Even our counter-cultures often look more like the culture of another time than truly a culture concerned with being shaped by the Other, Jesus Christ, and engaged with our own cultural shapings and changing realities in constructive-critical ways so that we might all excel in the mind of Christ, being love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance. And to these, let me add single-heartedness or chastity, persistence and diligence, wisdom and courage, generosity and justice, and most importantly, humility—close-to-earth-ed-ness—remembering that without God we are but dust, that our only true standing place is acknowledging our utter need before Infinite and Eternal God Who is Risen, that we share together the vulnerability of all finite creatures—just like everyone else.

And there are losses.

Increasingly, this language functions at a very low level as an all-encompassing hermeneutic or lens by which to interpret all matters.

This language may even be used for any and every situation in which someone feels her or him self wronged or left out or not on the inside no matter what the situation is or why or intent and often without engaging with the other person about whom such a claim is made that she or he is exclusive. Use of this language in this way ends up trivializing real and painful harm to persons in the community often associated with identity traits such as skin color, culture, class, and so forth.

Indeed, such trivializing ends up overturning the very ethical concern this language originally hoped to name and redress, namely the real and painful harm done to persons because of race, gender, ethnicity, and more. In other words, true communal ethical or ascetical theological concerns of the Body of Christ, Christ’s Community in our care for one another are compared with any and every matter of concern.

Use of this language alone as a singular interpreter of Christ’s Community finally does not allow for questioning or making of any claims about communal ethics or ascetical theology at all. It ends up precisely negating the possibility of making any such claims because no other hermeneutic or claim can stand alongside it when pushed to its final end.

The extreme claim by some is that it allows for an “anything goes” mentality. An example might be that a person in the community is bedding another’s spouse. The personal and communal damage of such behavior is enormous. To suggest this is not okay, however, could be claimed to be exclusive—and I have witnessed this happen. But this “anything goes” works both from the “right” and from the “left”. What of the person who is a Neo-Nazi and makes no bones about it. Or the landlord who actively oppresses her or his tenants and shows up on Sunday expecting to be praised and admired and unchallenged. To be truly inclusive in this low-level understanding of this language dialectic would not allow for me to claim that racism and anti-Semiticism and sharkery and adultery are not okay. And that makes me exclusive on both counts where this dialectic becomes the singularly driving interpretive framework. Or if we do make such claims in the name of inclusion we automatically put into question using this as the singular interpretive framework by which we challenge ourselves and the community. And to then jump to claiming that the other person is being exclusive without further ado is to instantiate a framework that is inoperable on its own alone. Better to get specific about the communal ethical or ascetical theological claim regarding sexual conduct, racializing, and the like.

After all, in all three cases, I am willing to make faithful pastorally informed communal ethical or ascetical theological claims. And to do so is not to cast that person out the door, but it is to challenge them, and in some cases, yes, it might mean the possibility of excommunication if there is failure of amendment of life and the community is increasingly harmed by unchecked behavior. Whether I like it or not, this is the charitable interpretation of my own experience of excommunication even if I must finally disagree with the assessment and must assert in kind that in actuality the Church is very culturally-shaped in relation to queer persons so that it is not clear to me if it is possible for the Church at this time to make an equitable examination of our persons and lives in light of Christ's mind. That bullying (and worse), for example, is a regular feature of Churchly and worldly treatment of queer persons should give all Christians pause that perhaps something is off. But that is not nearly as interesting as what a committed pair does between the sheets.

The framework of much inclusion/exclusion however makes communal correction at all nearly impossible. And when dealing with matters of racism or adultery, communal correction, preferably conversational-conflictual in style is vitally necessary to make change to how it is we are with one another.

Further, this language dialectic also allows the user of the language to claim instant personal and moral unchallengeability no matter what and in such a way that any shade of distinctions is lost. A circle emerges in which to ask any questions of a person claiming to be excluded is to make oneself into an excluder also. With this, the language tends to assume willful malice or willful obliviousness on the part of the other and is not available to alternative input much less conversational engagement and awareness raising. Worst of all, it can shut down conversations or development of awareness about painful and hard matters we face as fellow God’s-beloveds at precisely the point when conversation even conflictual conversation and awareness raising are most necessary and vital to begin to rip away masks that tell us as Church that all is well with us and that we actually treat one another as we would wish to be treated if we were in the other’s shoes.

But finally, and not unrelated to this unchallengeability, indeed coupled precisely with it, this language actually becomes a language that holds persons in a place of victimization and allegiance to a noblesse oblige benevolence mentality toward the harmed on the part of those who think of themselves as including.

There is a failure to recognize that in Christ’s Body, it is God who includes all of us through Holy Baptism. The challenge to the ways we treat one another in community, that is our communal ethics or ascetical theology or lack thereof, thus, flows first and foremost from and in God’s embrace of each of us as beloved in Jesus Christ and God’s embrace of us to become more like Jesus Christ. In other words, to be included by God is also to be being changed more into an image of Christ. And that comes with communal ethical or ascetical theological claims to excelling in the mind of Christ as growth in love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance. And to these, let me add single-heartedness or chastity, persistence and diligence, wisdom and courage, generosity and justice, and most importantly, humility—close-to-earth-ed-ness—remembering that without God we are but dust, that our only true standing place is acknowledging our utter need before Infinite and Eternal God Who is Risen, that we share together the vulnerability of all finite creatures—just like everyone else. We can disagree about those patterned gospel responses that increase us in these character markers or ways of being, certainly, but we cannot set aside that these have claim on us at all for the sake of including as a singular interpretive framework.

As theologian, James Alison, reminds us, to be baptized is to be on the inside of God’s life. And if I am on the inside of God’s life, I am a responsible. To be on the inside, to a responsible, means that I can speak face to face to my fellow baptized, and challenge her or him and the community if necessary because I am held by God's indissoluable bond. And they can do the same with me. It means that I can refuse to place myself in a grateful subservient position to others simply for being allowed through the door. It means that I am free to offer my gifts irrespective of whether or not they are welcome or received or wanted. It means that I am a full participant in God’s own life through Christ in the Spirit. And it means in turn that I am a full participant in the life of this world, so I can stand in solidarity with others rather than think of myself as their defender or think of them as recipients of my charitable excess, so that I can take responsibility for those moments when I do not treat a fellow beloved of God as I would wish to be treated if I were her or him.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Baptism Practicum: Afterthoughts: Responsibility and Normativity

Last week we met to do the baptism practicum. In solidarity with the students in my practicum group, I too led a practice baptism using the rite from the 1979 BCP.

What I appreciate in the BCP besides the spare, yet elegant language and theologically focused brevity, is that this is what you will do. Period. No options to the nth degree. As I noted to the students, as an Episcopalian, I don’t get to choose, but must do what the Church does as legislated for in this Church. Common Prayer and canon law are means to provide for normativity in a non-established setting.

This not being free to choose among myriad options is a form of freedom in its own right similar to the freedom of marriage. The tyranny of choice is removed and in its place is given the freedom of commitment over the long-haul. In a society driven by an economy of choice, an economy of commitment is liberating while also difficult because it counters the daily justification for our wandering and changing desires.

As a pastor in the ELCA, however, my students will be required to choose and not simply let the one being baptized or the parents choose from options, some of which are better than others. This too is a pastoral responsibility, a commitment to something, the Church, and to Someone, Christ, who is more than just ourselves.

When asked why it is I recommend all have the Baptismal formula memorized in both its Eastern and Western forms, I noted that in extremis, a layperson too may be called upon to baptize, especially if you work in a setting where death is a regular occurrence. Even as a layman, however, I am not free to futz with the formulae and I am responsible to use the Western form as a common prayer Anglican:

N., I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Or if free to use the Eastern form, it is:

N. is baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I remain surprised then that some thought themselves free to futz with the formulae in either form. Ecumenically, historically, and theologically this presents great problems and places the baptized in pastoral danger. What do I mean? She or he may transfer at some point to another congregation or to another tradition and mentioning that she or he was baptized in the Name of the Source, Word, and Spirit, or God forbid, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer may put her or his baptism in question, may take away the liberty of God’s assurance marked by word, water, cross, and oil. That is not to say that we cannot write and speak of the Trinity in several ways that are orthodox, but for the sake of catholicity, these liturgical formulae are not futzable, just as we would not substitute something other for the Words of Institution. To do so here again raises pastoral questions as to whether this is what we say it is, namely, Holy Communion, the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

This is all to say that to be beholden to Someone and someones more than oneself is part of what if means to be Christian, part of what it means to be ordained.

Six Signs: Two Years Later

I still think this has punch: Six Signs. The unbinding of our Prayer Book in processes not as carefully structured as those which went into its 1979 revision slowly undoes common prayer, our yardstick or normativity, as Anglican Christians in practice.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Communion Without Baptism (CWOB): A Follow-Up to Derek Olsen

Though I played a little bit the interlocutor or gadfly, Derek's assessment of CWOB gels close to my own concerns. At heart it undermines God's Economy as received and responded to us through means of matter and words. It undoes the Anglican commitment to a sacramental worldview on the universe, a rather generous outlook toward our social worlds, creation, and the entire cosmos despite it all, made possible because we have been given Sacraments of Irrevocable Union in Christ and Ongoing Nourishment by Christ.

Read his three-piece concerns on the subject:

I will say this as follow-up to Derek's concerns, oriented through my own lens, which tends to orient ecclesiological and ascetical concerns to the Person and work of Jesus Christ:

Jesus Christ's incorporation of us into His own Body, not simply inclusion into any old community--the Church is not a club (and parties left and right be ware! Unsavory ones, Gentiles abound.), is for me the explicit theological point of entry for God's wide welcome, into explicit relationship within God's own Life, made available at the Font by water and word and the Holy Spirit.

Explicit Welcome into and living within God's own Life is through God's Community, the Church, we are given a Community and given over to one another in Christ, which should signify to us and to the whole cosmos, that God's Welcome explicitly received and taken up and put on in Holy Baptism, and living in as well as out of God's own Life as flesh and blood human creatures, works itself out on the level of creatures in the ways we relate to one another and the whole cosmos in Christlike ways and not (and when not, turning again and again, to our only Life). St. Paul calls these fruits of the Spirit: faithfulness, promise-keeping, courage, listening (obedience), and the like.

In other words, God's Welcome explicitly received and taken up and put on in Holy Baptism and living in God's own Life flows into discipleship rooted first and foremost not in being the interlocutor of my sister or brother, but of myself. How might my habits, emotions, attitudes, behaviors not show forth God's love of myself, my neighbors, and the whole cosmos? Where do I lie? Not keep a promise? Forget the least? Scorn the vulnerable?

Where we downplay that our Baptism is an incorporation into the Life of God the Father Unbegotten through Jesus Christ the Son Only-Begotten by the Holy Spirit Proceeding in Christ's Community, that is, Christ's Body, Christ's Temple, Christ's People, Christ's Convocation, Christ's Church, Christ's Bride, Christ's Friends, we fail to be honest of Whose we are as members and of our calling when inviting the potential praiser, and so, we fail to be the Church, the visible Witness to God in Christ.

God's Baptismal Covenant presupposes this grounding as the inclusion into Christ's Community, beginning as it does with The Apostles' Creed, and only then moving on to our promises as response. It also suggests that inclusion in this Community, Christ's very Body, requires of all of us as response the ongoing reordering of the way we relate to one another, the world, and creation--that is, discipleship, in light of Who Christ is for us and to us. The fallout of being incorporated by God through God's Community is a life ongoingly reordered to the Incarnation in His totality, namely, His Person, Jesus Christ, is a life, in other words, reordered to the Life of the Holy Trinity on the level of human creatures.

In the totality of Incarnation of the Second Person the Word the Only-Begotten from Conception to Cross, from Resurrection to Ascension, heaven and earth are irrevocably joined. This is the bedrock and ground of our witness, our proclamation, our invitation. And it by this lens that we are called to live in all the everyday and ordinary as well as the extraordinary difficulties of being alive.

We need not be anxious mongerers of damnation, swelling the ranks of the Font through fear and unbelief, nor need we be hawkers of salvific wares as if the chief point were purchase of heaven rather than receiving Life in God, but we are called to witness, proclaim, point to, and invite all peoples and indeed the entire cosmos into open praise-response to this Generous, Loving, Saving Word Who Has Once-For-All Overcome, Who is present and working among us hiddenly in the day-to-day life of the world and all of creation, and Who is present to us explicitly wherever two or three are gathered in His Name in Psalm and Prayer, Word and Sacrament, in proclamation as well as presentation.

We are called as the Witnessing, Praise Community to invite all so moved to receive and take up their part and put on Christ in the Witnessing, Praise Community, and Holy Baptism is the means given us for this purpose as well as the chief visible witness and Testament in matter and by word to the work of God's Holy Spirit in making known God's irrevocable decision for me, for you, for us, for the whole cosmos in Christ Jesus once-for-all.

Giving no explicit account of Who we receive in Holy Communion and the claims this One makes on us to grow up into full stature, is false advertisement of a chummy hospitality cheese-and-cracker affair without the risks entailed in receiving God's xenia, God's peace-offering. God's xenia, God's peace-offering will and does change us, and starts not with that one or that one, but with pointing at me in making self-examination, of reflecting on where my own life shines forth less than God's once-for-all peace wrought fleshwise in Christ.

If and only if we are clear and upfront that it is this Life Who we are inviting any and all to receive at the Altar-Table, then should we feel comfortable opening up the Altar-Table without explicit mention of Holy Baptism as prior ground.

And with this warning to us should we so choose: We set up the one unbaptized receiving for great travail, for she or he has no visible Mark by water and word so necessary to a created race, that Irrevocable Sign and Seal of God's joining heaven and earth once-for-all in Christ.

She or he has no explicit being joined to the Support Community by etching on her or his flesh by drops and drips and splashes of water with words of God's Irrevocable Embrace sealed by oiled traces crossward forever, of which our daily remembrance by marking ourselves (+) at The Apostles' Creed serves as rebuke to hell, and upon which we fall back when the Tempter comes scheming, and the Tempter will come as F. D. Maurice reminds us: Baptismal Calling

Here are some of my previous posts that relate to the matter:

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Focus of Unity? Inclusion?

One of the current problems afflicting Anglicanese especially as we concern ourselves with ecclesiologies and the Anglican Communion as institution is that oft repeated phrase that "the Archbishop of Canterbury is the focus of unity" and such similar turns. Let me be frank. As an Anglican, the Archbishop of Canterbury is not my focus, nor that Who binds me to all other Anglicans and more Christians besides. There is One Center, One Focus of our Unity, One Head, namely, Jesus Christ, Who is not localized but available in all times and places to all sorts and conditions of human beings whenever they call upon His Name or so gather.

There can be and is only One focus of our unity, Jesus Christ. This Reformation profession of faith is at the heart of our Anglican praying surrounding headship and representation, mediation and salvation. If and whenever one called to present and represent, that is, point we the Body to the One Christ among us, binding us, holding us, abiding with and in us, or the office that that one occupies rather becomes another Rome or Constantinople or Alexandria or Jerusalem, we have sold our inheritance for rotted pottage.

The second is like the first, inclusion is the work of God in Christ by the Spirit first and foremost, not our own. God's inclusion is likely to upset apple carts for those who don't want to be related to sorts considered unsavory wherever that lies for you and I. If we have no place for those we hold to be unsavory, Christ may have no place for us.

To be included in Christ's own life by Baptism, that is, to receive Christ's decisive once-for-all overcoming of sin, evil, and death calls us into a life of discipleship, but a life of discipleship is not a program, however, great the intellectual edifice and theological arguments for a formulaic response, but a living response to grace of which the fruits, as St Paul reminds, us are rather obvious.

Ascetical theology, thus, gives us time-and-community-tested shapes for what a faithful response looks like, not a pat-program for success or a one-size-fits-all formula that expects extraordinary things of a small group while being comfortable with the ordinary and even rather less than shining for the majority blessed. Adjustments can and will and must be made to the time-and-community-tested patterns in light of the ongoing observation of graced lives of peoples living in response to Christ as members of the One Body. We must always ask the question of one another, What is grace doing in your life? Fruits will surely tell us over time.

That is to say, any ascetical theology worth its catholicity requires observation and experience, and not just those of the majority. All the careful biblical, traditional, rational, theological, intellectual, ecclesiological, "objective" arguments and systems and programs regarding our current ascetical theological issue de jour end up making of these honorable enterprises a laughstock to our despisers when observations and experiences of real flesh with real flesh simply do not fit the edifice. Sometimes it requires the Word working in the world to turn us again to consider what He might be up to among the peoples and nations. Sometimes it is the Word at work in the world that catches our attention long enough to repent, that is, turn us again to reliance on the only Center we can or will ever properly have as Churches. We finally have to admit that theology too can disguise sheer loathing, prejudice, and ill will. And all in the Name of Jesus Christ.

To quote from F.D. Maurice:

This is the second characteristic of the Prayer Book I would speak of. It is expressed in the words of my text,—“With all that in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both theirs and ours.”

The Romanists asserted that the Church was bound together by the common adherence of its members to a visible Person and a visible Centre. How was this notion to be refuted? Can you overthrow it by calling the Bishop of Rome Antichrist? By denouncing the Church to which he belongs as the Babylonian Harlot? Or by setting up an Anglican system in opposition to this Roman system—by determining that the centre in our fellowship shall be at home instead of Italy? Or is exclusiveness best defeated by Catholicity, cruel anathemas by an universal fellowship, a mimic Ecclesiastical centre, by turning to that invisible spiritual Centre which was made manifest when Christ rose from the dead and ascended on high? Our Reformers adopted the latter form of protest as the most reasonable, and they made it in this way. They found prayers which were based on this universal principle, many of which had been narrowed and debased by the local and idolatrous principle; they removed the outgrowths, they took the substance of the petitions. So they claimed for themselves and for us a fraternity with other ages and other countries, with men whose habits and opinions were most different from their own, with those very Romanists who were slandering and excommunicating them. They claimed fraternity with men who in every place were calling on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, whether they were tied and bound by the chains of an evil system, or had broken those bonds asunder. They claimed fellowship with men hereafter, who on any other grounds should repudiate their Church and establish some other communion—with men of every tongue and clime, and of every system. If they will not have a Common Prayer with us, we can make our prayers large enough to include them. Nay, to take in Jews, Turks, Infidels and Heretics, all whose nature Christ has borne. For he is theirs as well as ours. He has died for them as for us, he lives for them as for us. Our privilege and glory is to proclaim him in this character; we forfeit our own right in him when we fail to assert a right in him for all mankind. The baptized Church is not set apart as a witness for exclusion, but against it. The denial of Christ as the root of all life and all society—this is the exclusive sectarian principle. And it is a principle so near to all of us, into which we are so ready at every moment to fall, that only prayer to our Heavenly Father through the one Mediator, can deliver us from it.[1]

[1] F.D. Maurice, “Sermon I,”
The Prayer Book (London: James Clarke & Co. Ltd., 1966), 6-9.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Forget "Contemporary" and "Traditional": Other Directions

In teaching courses in liturgy last semester, I found myself having to give names to assumptions and observations I make about liturgy that move outside the usual categories, categories often used in derisive ways by those of various parties in worship warfare. While avoiding cultural tourism, I am cognizant that hybridity is ever at work. The idioms that move one generation may not move another simply because the overlap of popular and church music in everyday experience is different over time. Here are some thoughts:

Recycling - We have riches in orders of service for a reason. Each of these orders in their time, place, and culture intended an encounter with the Living God in a way consonant with the distinctive Christian tradition through a particularity of shape and content. To recycle is to familiarize oneself with these riches and to incorporate these riches into liturgical preparation, for example, the Minor Propers, such as the Introit.

Fusion - Whether or not recycling is well-received often enough depends on how it is placed in linguistic and musical idioms that will speak to people in a particular locale and cultural formation. In Twenty-first Century America this can be quite wide and understanding your own parish context is vital. Though I am white, of largely Isles origin, and partial to Gregorian chant, I also move to Latin and African beats that are both vital to American music formation in our various types of music. To take the Introit appointed in Gregorian chant, adapt it to a Latin, Gospel, etc. is not necessarily at variance or inauthentic to my own musical or idiom formation on the whole or to that of many in our cultural. It is wise to teach how it is inculturation need not mean dumping what is inherited. Fusion is a way to do this.

Directionality - How is it that the overall flow or direction of the service carries how we meet God and God meets us?[1] For Lutherans, this is generally an Incarnational, Christocentric, God comes to us, movement. For Anglicans, this is generally a Pneumatic or Trinitarian, God takes us into God's own life, movement. Neither is wrong, and neither is necessarily only to be found in either tradition, but they are distinctive "feels".

Formational Resonances - We are not tabulae rasae. We are already shaped before we shape. We come to preparing and doing worship already formed in certain ways. For example, assumption that there is an ordo is to already be formed without consciously recognizing this as such.

[1] "meets us" is language I received from two students, Holly Johnson and Michael Larson.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Marriage as Discipleship

My friend Lee points us to a piece how marriage is no longer traditional. The observations are true that marriage has changed a great deal in our time, moving away from a focus on alliances and property and begetting to love and partnership. But romantic notions too will not do. This wedding frenzy of modern American life is not consonant with relating the married estate to the gospel life of discipleship as I understand it, and so, I continue to raise the question of what marriage means as disciples of Christ. As a minority sort and condition, I have more freedom to do just that.

From here, it often seems like defense of marriage looks an awful lot like an unwillingness to examine how much Christians do not have a singular theology of marriage, and so, we're quick to resort to simplistic reaffirmations (of ourselves). A quick perusal of scripture, history, theology, and liturgies bears this out. And any who tell you otherwise have not wrestled with the fragments adequately. So the question for me is this, how will we arrange the fragments into a response to Jesus Christ? In vows? In rites? In ascetical or moral theologies or ethics? In the particularity of real human lives (no two marriages are alike)?

For me, marriage is about discipleship, about growing together in being for others in response to Christ. That will look different in each case even as all cases share similarities. In this regard, I do not see the monastic life and married life as unrelated, nor do I accept Manichaean tendencies in the tradition that would break eros and agape completely sometimes doing so by making of monastic life something superior (as if celibates are not sexual) rather than a particular way of discipling fallen connectivity. Both are oriented to bridle and disciple our fallen connectivity (sexuality) for others over the long haul. Nor do I accept the romantic lauds of marriage that somehow make of it in itself our sanctification if not salvation. Such is romanticism pushing into our ascetical theologies in an unwarranted way. On the level of systematics, we would call that eschatological collapse. Marriage is wrought with tensions of the incomplete and contingent. Rowan Willliams reminds us of this in The Body's Graces by observing that such notions do not bear out in examination of real marriages, where blessed and approved relationships harbor abuse and the like all too often. Such romantic, self-justifying notions are just too easy. In our own time, marriage itself has become something of an idol just as in the days of the Reformers was monastic life. And it is used to make oneself feel superior (justified) to the minority sort. That this seems to go unnoticed except by those of minority affectional orientation puzzles this Christian. That this subtle salvation by marriage trajectory flies in the face of God's unearned love in Christ astonishes and horrifies. It leaves no room for others to receive themselves from God as good and as also fallen in their connectivity. It has a program for you too... No receiving God's gospel first and having patience to see how that might work out or not in receiving a self for others.

Marriage is about disicpleship not some sense of feeling oneself glorious and superior for being made a majority sort (some sort of heterosexual theology of glory thinly disguised by a too quick and self-justifying read of nature without Hooker's and even Aquinas' recognition that minority possibilities are likely in creation and human life and need be accounted for within the same required virtues or rather gifts of the Spirit--as in, does this have any chance of showing any? Hooker does this by relating the minority sort to the usual cases as his reform of natural law by common law sensibilities. But moreso, all cases for Christians must be related first to Christ.

The Norm for us, and Marriage properly conceived, is not heterosexuality nor homosexuality, but Jesus Christ and his relationship to us in Holy Baptism. All others at best are derivative, pointing us to Him (that fruits of the Spirit thing again). Just as Bl. Julian makes of maternity something first reflective of Christ's own for and to us. And it is this directionality that leaves us wiggle room for rethinking several things.

Within discipleship, it is possible to have variety. I say this because there is more than one relationship of Christ to us, than Ephesians on Marriage or Luke on Mothering. John's Friendship is one, and one with which many same-sex partnerships resonate precisely because some of the other notions suggest domination and too easy pigeonholing of men and women without care for their particularity. And hence, why some of us continue to raise questions both about Christian conceptions of marriage and whether or not a third estate is not called for the same-sex affectioned. Or if not, marriage needs further rethinking. After all, same-sex partnerships bear many similarities to both married and monastic life. So much of traditional marriage rites have little to say about marriage as discipleship and I want little part in them. It very well could be that we are being given a gift in our time because of having to wrestle with the existence of same-sex affectioned persons to really rethink our rites to discipleship.

As I wrote in comment to Lee's post:

I think companionate is a key term here and maintains a central component of traditional notions of marriage that cannot help but be concerned with matters of estate, namely board and bed. To be a companion is one who shares bread together, and be extension, all that this requires as responsibles–work, home, hearth, children if so blessed, parents to attend in later years, etc. It does not allow you to fly the coop of responsibility as too much of romantic notions tends to do.

In companionship love unbridled and undisciplined and otherwise disposed not to care but for self (lust) needs takes shape as for others, firstly within the realm of hearth and home, but not without being so in the rest of life at work, extended family, etc. Romantic notions of marriage at play in our culture are a problem for me as Christian because what I am looking for, what I would discern as a mark of a healthy marriage, is are you overtime both growing in for others? And sometimes that starts with accepting that the beard shavings will never be wiped out of the sink!

What I would ask you, whether monastic or married, single or partnered is this, Are you growing in being for others in response to Jesus Christ? This question of the Incarnation, both in the Crib and on the Cross, is what makes or breaks our notions, ideologies, and prejudices all around.