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?


  1. I love this, Christopher....thank you.... it is so important to keep in mind we do live in a pluralistic society which, for now, allows respect for diversity..... WE is important because it is not just "We, the group" but "we, the people." I am so glad you were able to reach the women in the audience and resonate with others what her history, as a Coptic Christian, means TO THEM! and how we can benefit...

  2. Christopher: Thanks as always for your wise and historically informed reflections. I've posted a bit of a follow-up at my place. I think this whole notion of "participatory salvation" is very important.