Thursday, May 31, 2012

Friday, May 18, 2012

Matter Matters: Anglican Materiality

Everywhere I read these days, I encounter a lot of words about “spirituality.” In a recent conversation with a Lutheran student, I asked, “But what spirit?” “Well, the one in creation.” “Certainly. But Whose?” … Finally, I said, “The Spirit of Jesus.”

For me, as an Anglican Christian, Jesus is the “hinge,” to draw on Tertullian’s famous quotation about the Incarnation. And Jesus is the lens through Whom I am drawn into seeing human social life and all of creation as dignified, loved, redeemed, acting, in the words of F.D. Maurice and Michael Ramsey, as if the Consummation is already. As I observed in a sermon on Philippians 2:

This Lord Jesus, by his birth and life and death and resurrection and ascension and sending of the Spirit, freely shares the dignity of his Person and Name with you, with me, with us, with every creature and the whole of creation. 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. Amen. 
This is not one of the many spirits of woo and woo, but the Spirit who leads us into life. And by that, I mean the Spirit Who will not let us divide out a moment of experiencing God in contemplation from a moment of experiencing God in nature from a moment of dealing with conflict in our parish or work or home life from a moment of experiencing absolute Lutheran/Ignatian hiddenness and desolation. For someone like myself, who has experienced God in all of these ways, any lesser spirit will not do because any spirit lesser does not love flesh and life enough to have conceived God’s own Image as one of us in the womb of the Virgin Mother.

All are moments of potential encounter with the One Who promises to be with us always, not finally escaping this world, but continually engaging the world and recreating us all, not only in silence and beauty, as much as these are necessary for my well-being, but through the daily ins and outs of messy life.  Any spirituality worth my time will be one that puts fingers to flesh, not just in the beautiful moments, but in the hard times.

This is what Anglican liturgies do.

Anglican liturgies lead us into encounter with and train us to experience God who comes to us as word and song, innerward and outward, silence and voice, prayer and sacrament, as Word of our need for God in all things, as Body and Blood given to us in such a way that we are prevented from decoupling sweet things from “In the night in which he was betrayed.”  In our liturgies, we taste the vision of a God Who “goes all the ways down,” to quote Reformed theologian, Serene Jones.

The Spirit of this Jesus cannot lead us but to do the same, being of one will with the Father and the Son. So, our liturgies lead us not merely into fleeting moments of bliss, but train us to enduring responses of ecstasy, of going out of ourselves to be with and for others.

At the dismissal, we go forth thanking God, bearing thanksgiving into our fallen human social worlds and joining our voices with those of birds and bees and dogs.  We go forth into our human social worlds that are beloved and betrayer, we go forth into nature that is at once in glorious song to God and disfigured by our fallenness, our failure to acknowledge God in Christ as our “center and circumference,” to quote St. Bonaventure.

And just as Thomas does, we are asked to touch these wounds. For precisely where there is vulnerability, hurt, suffering, hard times and hardened hearts, the Word and Spirit are at work, blessing, healing, reconciling.  They ask our responsive cooperation. Or in the words of Anglican theologian, John Booty, our “contribution.”

This Spirit and any spirituality that goes and be-s with, takes us into the life of the world to be for the life of the world.  Contemplative practices, meditation on Scripture and creation, praying the Office, going to Mass, must be interpreted in this Light or they fail the Incarnation smell test.

[And as an aside, before some object, I would remind them that for St. Augustine, proclamation of the word too is sacrament. I don’t object. Words too are creatures, if you will. Through these too, God makes Godself available. As I’ve written before, words are icons—again, matter encounters with God in Christ Jesus. Use them with care and love.]

Recently in a sermon at my partner’s parish on Faithful, rather than Doubting, Thomas, I pondered for a moment the implications of a resurrection untethered from the cross (and crib):

In other words, in St. John’s proclamation and in Blessed Julian’s revelation and in Updike’s reading, bodies matter. “The flesh is the hinge of salvation.” Precisely from the inside, as one of us, a human creature of blood and sweat and clay, the Second Person, the Word, the Wisdom of God, the Image of God, wholly identifies with you and with me and with us and with every creature and the whole of creation, showing in himself very God, and in himself overcoming our march to an end in non-existence, non-being, hell—we might even say, [in] the spiritual. 
As I have continued pondering my “dense musing,” as a congregant observed to me afterward, rather than spirituality, I would suggest that we Anglican Christians are shaped by a very material orientation, a matter-loving ethos, that is rooted in the Incarnation, God become one of us as Jesus Christ. In the challenging words of William Temple, “Christianity is the most avowedly materialistic of all the great religions.”

And among Christians, though not uniquely, Anglican Christians embrace a vision of all of our human social worlds and the whole of creation reoriented to and reconciled with and united in the Communion of the Triune God, not just in the beauty of holiness in the sanctuary, but in the of joy in being alive even as we have to wrestle with all our complexity and mess and sin.

So, I would prefer to speak and write of Anglican life as practices of “materiality.” What do I mean by this? In a recent article, Lutheran Martin Marty quotes Anglican Martin Thornton.  Thornton reminds us of that distinctly Anglican focus on matter because of the Incarnation.  We Anglicans are a matter-loving people.  Marty spots our sacramental worldview and applies it to his Lutheran own.  So, I mean this way of viewing and engaging our fallen human social worlds and all creation as potential encounter with the Living Christ by the Holy Spirit, not by skirting around blood and flesh and bone, but by meeting the uniqueness of a created being spoken into existence and sustained in being by the Triune God.

I use this term, “materiality,” rather than the theologically proper “sacramentality” because we need a jolt to our system in the midst of the ubiquitous “spirituality” that in many of its various forms as interpreted is more often than not desirous to escape the grind of dust and press of flesh, to be at blissful peace away from others.  Such an interiority is at odds with contemplative practices (for these are the one's most labeled "spiritual"), and indeed, Office and Mass, intended to lead us deeper into the Life of God and paradoxically deeper into the life of the world.  Prayerful peace is a peace engaged with others' needs and sufferings and harms.  Daily bliss is a bliss in the sweeping of floors and changing of diapers.

Our experiences of God, to quote Karl Rahner, are “mediated immediacy.” God meets us through, with, in, or in the words of that ditty, attributed alternatively to John Donne and Elizabeth I, as matter:

He was the Word, that spake it:

He took the bread and brake it;

And what that Word did make it,

I do believe and take it. 
Whose Spirit? The Spirit of Jesus.

The Spirit Who works through, with, in, and as flesh, drawing us into Jesus Christ by calling us out of ourselves to be with and for others, so that indeed, I may encounter God in a bee buzzing in the flowers outside my window this morning as I pause from writing this or in the working out of ugly conflict with a co-worker.  And I might do so because I have been schooled to do so with daily Psalms:
O LORD, how manifold are your works!     in wisdom you have made them all;    the earth is full of your creatures.