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Divine Erotics: God-Talk, Part 3

“Wham, bam, thank you ma’am” is an appalling approach to sexual intimacy (it even borders on the violent). It’s just as bad in religion and theology.

The “quickie” means so much more than it used to. Now everything is quick – news, ideas, meet-ups, meals, research, home-repair, shopping. The Internet seems to thrive on “wham, bam, thank you ma’am” energy – not always, but it’s time to name it where we see it.

I read recently about young adults having social media sex hook-ups. Some of them (rather wistfully, I might add) wondered what it might be like to have an extended conversation with their sex partners but decided to save that for their thirties. Many of these same denizens of Web culture have no desire at all for religion; they already “know” what that’s all about. Neighborhoods, stores, community centers – I wonder whether 18-year olds realize fully that these originally meant physical spaces.

I don’t believe the Internet somehow “caused” all this. I remember a moment back in the late 1980s, when I was a parish priest in the Chicago area. A parishioner, who came to the early service on Sundays, complained to me about how long the sermon was (12 minutes) and how tedious the prayers were (10 minutes). He actually said, “I just want the cookie” (referring to the Eucharistic sacrament).

I confess to indulging in a moment of questionable pastoral sensitivity when I replied, “Gee, Bob, why don’t you donate some money and we’ll build a drive-through. I can just toss the cookie in your mouth as you drive by on your way to the golf course.”

Not a high-water mark in my priestly vocation.

All of this raises some profound questions for me in this third of a three-part series on Christian theology – what it’s about and how to do it.

I mean questions like: Don’t we want to inhabit a space somewhere? Do we want to cultivate a relationship or just “have” one? Do we now think of religion, spirituality, relationships, communities, sex, fun, and pleasure all in the same way? Have they all been flattened to whatever works right now?

We see a brief image, a quick video clip, opening sentences of an essay, a book cover, a billboard or light-post sign – what do we glean from these? Usually impressions, maybe germs of an idea, some hints at substance, hors d’oeuvres promising a meal, if we’re lucky. So where do we go and what do we do with snippets?

To be clear, I’m excited and inspired by social media and all the new technological ways of connecting with others (I blogged about that here). The potential is there and we’ve only just begun figuring it out. And yet I worry.

In a visually-saturated, multi-media culture, I worry that the time-worn approach to spiritual wisdom is now devoid of time, let alone space. The Internet has exacerbated a decades-long trend of collapsing the time-space continuum – no one has any time and there are no more spaces.

Theology is not about information and data. Theology is not a hook-up. Theology takes time and it takes space. Theology relies on sustained attention to texts and practices, formation in ways of thinking and living, arduous engagements with contrary opinions and glorious synchronicities. Christian theology is about bodies and being in relationship with bodies, and that takes, well, time and space.

Okay, theology is off-putting. Let’s call it something else, like “God-relation,” and whatever that means requires sustained attention in a community of accountability that breathes together and reads and serves and nurtures wisdom together. Just like any significant human relationship that isn’t a quickie in an alley. (Quickie aside: I’m not judging particular sexual practices. I’m calling for more thought, especially as it relates to God.)

So I’m tugging at the oars of the boat I hope we Christians inhabit. What I think we’re aiming for is something like a theologically informed spiritual practice for the sake of social change. This won’t happen in November, or even in 2016. Forget election cycles. We have serious work to do on a deep, romantic relationship with the One who created us.

I’ve been suggesting in this blog series some ways to think about that. The recap of the series looks like this:

  1. Humbly guard against idolatry (God-Talk, Part 1)
  2. Follow the creeds as a compass without a map (God-talk, Part 2)
  3. Treat theology as words about a love affair (God-talk, Part 3 of 3)

Adopting these three postures certainly will not heal all the divisions among “liberals” and “conservatives” (and likely won’t heal any of them). But they could well give us something to talk about a bit more productively.

If we’re going to use labels and categories at all any more, I might follow the lead provided by Tripp Hudgins, a colleague at the Graduate Theological Union who has a great blog. He has suggested calling a liberal/conservative mash-up approach “postmodern preservatives.” I love that, though Tripp may well disagree with my approach. But here’s why I like his moniker.

It’s high time to jettison the “start-from-scratch-by-following-the-lead-of-culture” caricature of self-styled liberals. It’s equally high time to reject the stereotype of self-styled conservatives who only say “the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.”

“Postmodern preservatives” instead treat the Bible seriously but not just by quoting it and abstracting it from contemporary concerns. They likewise take seriously both cultural and scientific advances but not without drawing from the wisdom of historical traditions.

I actually don’t think this represents something entirely new. I believe “postmodern preservatives” would offer a profoundly constructive corrective to what I consider to be the colossal blunders of modern Western Christianity. And they would do so by insisting that both history and contemporary culture offer vital insights to nurturing humanity’s love affair with God – and God’s passionate desire for us.

I’ll offer more on this in future posts. But for now, can all of us Christians at least agree that we’re trying, as best we can, to respond to the romantic, erotic, loving invitation of the One who created us? We can’t do that with a quickie. It’s going to take time. Let’s make this marriage last.

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Creedal Magnetism: God-Talk, Part 2

We can do anything we want with this planet since Jesus is coming back soon.
Round up gay people in a corral and let them starve to death.
People without health insurance deserve what they get.

Are those “Christian” statements? Why or why not? Each of them was made in various forms and more than once by a self-professed Christian. How do we discern what qualifies as “Christian”? Do we discern it based on what we say or by what we do or both? What if what we say doesn’t match very well or at all with what we do?

I still have a magnet that mom put on the refrigerator in my childhood house. It reads, “What you do speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.” I didn’t quite get it when I was young; it annoyed me as a teenager; and I still have it. I believe that magnet is deeply theological.

I take that magnet message as a clarion call for Christians to prioritize how they live in the world as the basis for evangelism rather than how well we parse our doctrines. These days, I don’t see any point in trying to persuade people to believe in God or to follow Jesus through rational argument. That ship sailed a long time ago.

Creating communities of radical hospitality and compassionate service is the best evangelistic magnet at our disposal – and not because doing so might fill our pews but because it’s the right thing to do and God has called us to do it.

Conversely, the worse thing we can do is exactly what too many Christians have done for too long: make intellectual assent to doctrine the gatekeeper for belonging. While some people may be argued into belief, most people are loved into it. Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another… By this everyone will know you are my disciples if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

As promised, I really am going to write something here about creedal Christianity. I truly am socially “liberal” because of my “conservative” theology. For the latter, I rely on the creedal history of the Christian Church. But my mother’s magnet reminds me that how we live is the best witness to what any of us want to say.

So why then bother with creedal statements at all? Let’s just throw great parties with great food!

Why? Because after two people have fallen in love with each other, they eventually need to talk about their relationship. Because after spending time in the regional park with my dog, I want to talk with someone about the plants, the terrain, and the climate. Because after organizing a neighborhood watch group, I want to talk with my neighbors and find out who they are, what they care about, and how I might be a better neighbor.

The creedal history of Christianity is of course complex and vexing. But I do believe our ancestors in the faith still have something to say to us today about God, Jesus, the Spirit, and what in the world we think we’re all doing. The following are just some of the ways that I continue to experiment with how to think about, treat, and address the classic creeds of Christian faith.

An Impromptu Tag-Football Game at the Family Reunion
There’s no official football field, so the family members take a cooler, a beer bottle, a diaper bag, and a sweatshirt to mark the four corners of the playing area. Someone brought a ball, people are divvied up into teams, and the fun begins. Someone keeps score, but no one really cares who wins. The diaper bag might get kicked out of alignment once or twice, someone might howl at this, but it’s all in good fun. Creeds provide the parameters of the playing field on which we think and talk about God among family members.

An Improvisational Stage Play
Theatrical actors pay careful attention to the stage cues of a director, both in scripted plays and in improvisational moments. Quite remarkably, the most scripted of plays can be performed in various ways depending on the director. Likewise, an improvisational performance relies heavily on directorial assistance. Creeds provide a loose script for faithful actors, and variances in the performances can prompt profound insights. No one performance is exactly like any other. Creeds are cues, not scripts, but they are important.

Open Source Software
Those of a certain age will remember that “software” meant ordering a product from a company that arrived in the mail on a disc. Load it to your hard-drive and it will do what I was designed to do. Open source software by contrast provides basic coding for doing something, but the end user can change the code and adapt it for particular needs. There are limits to what can be done to open source software, but they are vastly different from discs. Creeds suggest theological programming directions and functions, but both pathways and outcomes are in the hands of end users.

My Grandmother’s Recipe Cards
In her own handwriting, my maternal grandmother made recipe notes like “use some butter around the size of an egg or so,” or “stir until it looks like the color of our backyard field in September” or “toss in some salt; stir; taste it; add some more if you like.” This stands in stark contrast to the narrative and instructions one finds in Cook’s Illustrated. Creeds provide general directions, hints at how to proceed, and room to toss in one’s own flavor. I am profoundly grateful for grandma’s recipe cards for that reason, just as I am for Christian creeds.

In the end, what we think and say about God matters. It matters just like what we think and say about the people we love matters; and what we think and say about the environment matters; and what we think and say about our communities matters. All of this matters not because someone will judge us when we get it “wrong” or reward us because we are “correct.” It matters because we want to enrich and deepen our relationships.

I believe the most magnetic, attractive aspect of the universe is God – and it’s reflected in a loving embrace, a brook in the park, a moment of solidarity in the neighborhood. If Christians don’t live this magnetism, there’s no point in evangelism.

Be attractive. Then let’s talk.

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American Idols: God-Talk, Part 1

There are some things for which we do not give awards but which Americans tend to idolize nonetheless. Today I’m thinking especially of individual liberty in relation to the supposed constitutional right to have weapons, as well as the murkier right to private property. (Gird your loins for this take on such Constitutional matters.)

We’re not likely to hear a conversation about liberty as a form of idolatry in our courts of law, but it’s high time to have that conversation in our churches. Is it really okay for humans to do whatever they want? Do we really want to codify that idea? Is there nothing that Christian faith and theology can offer to these questions?

As promised, this is the first of a three-part blog series on theological ideas and why they matter. And they matter not least for the people who were killed or injured in Aurora, Colorado today and for the many species that are, even now as I write this, going extinct on this planet.

St. Augustine of Hippo (North Africa)

I begin with this fourth-century quote from St. Augustine: “If you understand something, it’s not God.”

I take Augustine to be urging two things at once: to adopt a profound humility in our theological reasoning and to avoid idolatry at all costs. (Whether he himself managed to do this is beside the point.)

Individual liberty (a modern, western, Enlightenment concept) might seem a bit out of place in a cautionary tale about humility and idols. But I believe liberty might well stand as a cypher for western modernity’s presenting sin: putting the human in the place of God. This has been happening slowly but surely for about three centuries now, at least.

The many benefits of the Enlightenment’s stress on individual autonomy and human rights notwithstanding, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” come with a significant theological and, I would argue, social cost. Concerning the former: forgetting that Christian theological traditions have never understood freedom to be synonymous with the absence of constraint (spiritual freedom is always for the sake of doing something in particular not anything at all). Concerning the latter: elevating individual freedom over the common good (individual thriving is never an end in itself but something to contribute to the greater good). I believe both are illustrations of Augustine’s cautionary note about humility and idolatry.

Consider first the unrelenting, grotesquely well-funded, and usually vitriolic rhetoric of the National Rifle Association. For them, apparently, any gun-control legislation whatsoever is a pernicious infringement on the right to “keep and bear arms” guaranteed by the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

We are facing yet again another moment when U.S. citizens ponder the role of guns in our common life. I think it’s important to note that violent crime has actually been decreasing steadily in the U.S. over the last few years, but mass killings have seen an increase. I’m not so sure that tighter gun control laws would have prevented what happened in Aurora today. But I don’t think that’s the point.

I think the point is the stress on individual liberty, that the individual reigns supreme in all matters of social and economic policy. I believe that is a form of idolatry, of replacing God with the human. Christians should say so, regardless of the policy implications.

Consider, second, that every single oil well, gas drilling operation, and fracking enterprise relies on a murky notion of the right to private property. (In those cases, property owned by corporations, but apparently the U.S. Supreme Court believes corporations to be individuals. But don’t single out the Supremes on this. I’m always amazed that the U.N. General Assembly’s “Declaration of Universal Human Rights” in 1948 included “private property” as one of those rights, in Article 17).

Here individual liberty comes home to roost in some vexing ways. Can you do anything you please with the property you own? No, but the constraints are wildly loose, and just try arguing any constraints at all in some parts of the U.S. and be prepared to talk to a shotgun (see the first consideration above).

The very notion that human beings have a “right” to “own” property and do with it mostly as they please flies in the face of a very traditional Jewish and Christian concept: stewardship. I’m well aware of the critiques of the biblical notion of stewardship over creation derived from Genesis. That said, are the problems with the concept of stewardship more difficult to deal with than the free-range property rights of corporations and, yes, individuals?

“Stewardship” means that what one stewards is not one’s own property. It is entrusted to that person or community for the one who does “own” it — or in this case, the One who created it. Sadly, most Christians seem to talk about stewardship only in relation to fundraising, and the planet is in peril because of it.

I return often to a wonderful 2009 book by a sociologist, James William Gibson: A Reenchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature. I believe his thesis can be reduced to this: environmental change won’t happen unless and until we cultivate a re-enchantment with nature. And we are faced with severe obstacles in that task on nearly every front, not least is the modern western view of “nature” as simply a “grid of private property” (page 72). Just imagine flying over the U.S. from San Francisco to New York. What would you see out the window of that plane? Mostly property lines – state, corporate, and individual. Where is the Creator of all this?

There are of course many other forms of American idolatry – the flag, the institution of marriage, free-market capitalism, home ownership, and the Super Bowl, to name just a few. And of course, theology itself can easily become an idol, and Augustine was particularly keen to guard against that.

I’ll make suggestions in response to all that in the next two blog posts in this series, including how we might think about creedal statements in Christian history and also how the “erotic” is indispensable to “traditional” and “classic” Christianity. So stay tuned.

For now, as a beginning, I’ll offer this: Extolling the virtues of individual liberty belongs on a slippery slope toward idolatry, to replacing God with the individual human. I think that’s where any discussion of theological ideas – liberal, conservative, progressive, traditional, radical, or reactionary – needs to begin. Are we trying to deal with an encounter with the living God, the Creator of all, or an idol?

As the holy month of Ramadan begins, perhaps our Muslim sisters and brothers say it best:

“There is no God but God (lā ʾilāha ʾillà l-Lāh).”

That claim could, quite literally and practically and thankfully, change the world.

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Saving the Planet One Dogmatic Doctrine at a Time

Ideas matter. They matter all the time, but especially in times of peril – social, political, and ecological peril. We live in such perilous times today.

These days, ideas matter in direct proportion to every degree of elevation in the planet’s mean temperature (the double entendre here is useful). All of us need to take action now for this planet, this “fragile earth, our island home.” But we won’t get very far without sustained and careful thinking and deliberation. Ideas matter.

I don’t mean that ideas matter in isolation from action. That binary distinction is more than a cliché; it’s as furry with mold as the old blue cheese I recently found in my refrigerator. No one does hardly anything without thinking, even when some forms of thinking have become a habit. Ideas matter.

Consider just two recent examples of the clarion call for thinking carefully and deliberately together about our world. The first comes from Bill McKibben, a leading environmental advocate and writer. His latest piece in Rolling Stone is one of the more sobering assessments I’ve read about our global climate change crisis. McKibben himself describes the piece as among the most important he has ever written.

The second comes from someone I don’t know on a website I only recently found. Alan Goldstein describes in concise and compelling ways the current economic and social crisis our planet now faces. I find his analysis on target but his proposed solution weak.

Both of these pieces illustrate my point: ideas matter. Among the ideas that matter are religious ones generally, and theological ones in particular. Just read the daily newspaper. Religious ideas are fueling war, conflict, economic policies, social configurations, ecological positions…the list goes on and on. So how curious that neither McKibben nor Goldstein offers even a single word about religion!

How human beings think about God (or not) in relation to ourselves, to other humans, and to other animals has a profound impact on how we live (even if our practice doesn’t always match our theory perfectly or even closely). So how then do we think about God? And how do we deliberate together about our thinking? And how do we put our thinking into action and how does our action reshape our thinking?

I care about these questions as a human being, as a Christian, as a priest in the Episcopal Church, and as a theologian. I’m grateful for the responses in various venues to my recent blog post that suggest that others care about this, too.

So I decided to assemble a series of blog posts to describe how I approach theological ideas and the difference they make in how Christians live. That’s a ridiculously huge topic, so these are more like conversation starters.

I’ll begin with this: There is no grand solution for our planetary problems. There is no universal, all-encompassing strategy for human thriving. We all seek in vain for the pill, the method, the text, the location, the practice, the rite, the community, the guru, the geography, the school that will cure what ails us.

I’m glad there is no such thing or place or person or community that can do that. Because what we have instead are shards of beauty, slices of the piercingly poignant, the strands of awe dangling in the breezes of forests, the pimples of delight on the chin of lovers, the absurd glory of dead pets, and the stains of thumb-marks on pages turned in cherished texts.

We take all of this into our wildly graceful moments of human relationship, into our fumbling attempts at creating transcendent communities, and our visceral responses to weather reports.

All of this is the stuff of religion and theology. But few would guess it from reading media reports about denominational gatherings. If Christian theology can’t go back to the campfire where we all sit together and tell stories and shape communities of action and practice, then we are doomed.

But I don’t believe that. I believe religion generally and Christian theology in particular can help turn the tide toward flourishing – what God has intended all along. My next posts here in this blog will offer suggestions about how Christian communities might make ideas matter. Stay tuned. And please add your voice – without it, we’ll be stuck, mired, buried in a culture that denigrates ideas.

Don’t let that happen. Ideas matter.

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When “Liberal” Rhymes with “Theology” It’s Time for Evangelism

I am socially and politically liberal because I am theologically and religiously conservative.

Set aside for the moment all the problems involved in defining those highly-charged labels. I think lots of people would find it intriguing if not compelling and attractive to suppose that one’s social liberalism could derive from one’s theological conservatism. It’s a wonderfully peculiar notion and it apparently suffices to short-circuit the otherwise rational brains of journalists (among many others).

The New York Times has now joined both the Wall Street Journal and Belief.net (among other media sites) in providing a rather odd spin on the recently concluded General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Ross Douthat’s opinion piece is a breath of fresh air after the acerbic screed offered by Jay Akasie in the Wall Street Journal (of course the bar was set rather low…just sayin’.) And while Mr. Akasie’s piece has gone viral in the religious blogosphere, including here, I hope Mr. Douthat’s piece will too. It deserves attention.

Mr. Douthat offers the relief of reasonableness in the current slurry of religious commentary on General Convention, including what I take to be his clarion call for evangelism. I embrace that call, but for reasons that I think are significantly different from his. Indeed, I think he made some significant missteps in his piece; more on those in a moment.

The bottom line: Mr. Douthat argues that liberal Christianity needs to recover a “religious reason for its own existence.” I beg your pardon, Mr. Douthat, but you haven’t been paying attention – those religious reasons (plural) have been articulated aplenty. Take solace, though, in knowing that you are not alone. Hardly any other major media commentator understands liberal theology as theology either.

So I write this as a passionate liberal and a committed conservative, even though those labels are ridiculously malleable. And that’s exactly the point. If what lots of people are seeking (as Mr. Douthat hints at in his piece) are ways to embrace the historical traditions of Christianity while also adopting socially progressive postures toward cultural issues, well, come on over to the Episcopal Church!

The fact that Mr. Douthat would apparently not comprehend my invitation speaks volumes about the evangelistic task now facing Episcopalians following our General Convention. And that’s my point here: We Episcopalians need to be much more proactive and far less apologetic about our love of tradition for the sake of social change. Episcopalians? How about ALL self-styled progressive Christians? Come on folks, that’s what the world is hungry for!

In that light, here’s where I believe Mr. Douthat stumbled:

Misstep #1: Liberal Values Derive from Culture Alone

He didn’t quite say that, but according to Mr. Douthat, the latest General Convention merely confirms that “the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.”

That’s an astonishing claim in at least two respects. First, unless he and I were observing different conventions, the materials considered by those gathered recently in Indianapolis required some rather heavy theological lifting just to read let alone to discuss. And second, just because some positions adopted by a church body might align with the values and positions of “secular liberalism” does not, ipso facto, make them non-theological or somehow irrelevant to church life or redundant or…

Actually, I’m not entirely sure what point Mr. Douthat wished to make with that claim. But he does imply (though he refrains from saying so directly) that ostensibly liberal positions indicate a reliance on secular values rather than theological reasoning. He mitigates that charge by referencing the robust theological works that were part of the Social Gospel Movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Alas, he doesn’t seem to connect the dots between then and now.

Social gospel tent meeting in the late 19th century.

Misstep #2: The Episcopal Church Eschews Theology

Here Mr. Douthat is not at all coy about his perspective, and this misstep follows logically from the first one. If the Episcopal Church adopts a socially liberal position, it must have borrowed it from culture, not theology. This assumption has been around for a good long while now, and I keep puzzling over it, trying to make sense of it.

I can only suppose that self-styled conservatives are irritated and annoyed when self-styled liberals actually do our theological homework. That’s the only way I can make any sense of Mr. Douthat’s description of the Episcopal Church as “eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.”

As a theologian in the Episcopal Church, I certainly find it difficult not to be defensive about that statement. So let’s back up a moment.

It is true that in Christian history theological traditions have frequently served institutional preservation. That historical tendency has made the words “theology” and “conservative” seem naturally and obviously paired, like bread and butter (or I guess for Anglicans, like scones and jam). But correlation does not necessarily mean causation, and that can be annoying if one expects theology to serve socially conservative positions.

Unfortunately, that annoyance can create blind spots, for both “liberals” and “conservatives” alike. Consider, for example, the now infamous Windsor Report, which was prepared by a commission established by the Archbishop of Canterbury following the ordination of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.

The report called on the Episcopal Church to provide theological justification for that ordination since, apparently, we had not done so. This came as quite a surprise to many of us on this side of the Pond who wondered what had happened to the decades of theological work that we had done on precisely that question. Is there some kind of theological “Bermuda Triangle” in the middle of the Atlantic that swallows up “liberal” texts?

The response to that call came in the form of a document called “To Set Our Hope on Christ,” which was commissioned by the then Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (I was privileged indeed to have contributed to that work). The document provided our biblical, historical, and theological rationale for the ordination of Bishop Robinson and a lengthy appendix detailing the history of that work stretching back to at least 1976.

I’ve heard nary a word about it since (further evidence for my “Bermuda Triangle” theory).

So now consider what just happened in Indianapolis. Those of us who worked on the same-sex blessings project were committed to grounding our work in Scripture, drawing from historical traditions, and providing sound theological arguments. The result was a report that contained theological essays, pastoral care and teaching materials, guidance concerning canon and civil law, and of course the liturgy itself – a report of nearly 100 pages.

I really don’t think I’m being defensive by insisting that Mr. Douthat reconsider whether the document we prepared illustrates an eagerness to “downplay theology entirely” among Episcopalians. Frankly, that’s a cheap shot and not worthy of your journalistic skills, Mr. Douthat.

Misstep #3: Liberal Nuns Dilute Catholicism

In an otherwise cogent and well-written column, I’m a bit perplexed by Mr. Douthat’s nearly gratuitous critique of Roman Catholic nuns. He seems to argue that the Vatican needs to interrupt the socially liberal American nuns lest we lose the socially liberal institutions that they have founded and operate. Maybe I’m the only one, but I find that incoherent.

Here again I can only assume that sound theological reasons for socially liberal advocacy simply scramble the radar for some people. After all, one of the best examples outside of the Episcopal Church for a robust theological liberalism is actually (wait for it) the tradition of Roman Catholic social teaching. I don’t mean the latest declarations from Benedict XVI. I mean the rich resources one can find in: “Rerum Novarum” (a late 19th century encyclical on the rights of workers in relation to capital, among other astonishingly “socialist” ideas); or “Gaudium et Spes” (a brilliant piece of theologically sophisticated social analysis from the Second Vatican Council); or “Economic Justice for All” (the American Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter on the US economy in 1986, with important sections on biblical and theological reflection).

Media commentators are no less tone deaf to Roman Catholic social teaching than they are to any other instance of theologically informed progressive Christianity. Quite honestly I fear that way too many people today in North Atlantic societies (journalists or not) simply cannot wrap their heads around a “conservative” theological position that has socially “liberal” consequences.

The fault for that lies not with journalists, but with Christians – with people, that is, like me, and with institutions like the ones I work for right now: seminaries and congregations who simply haven’t figured out how to “message their message.”

So I’m grateful for Ross Douthat’s column. I think it issues a clarion call to Episcopalians to do what most of us haven’t been trained to do: articulate loudly and clearly and evangelistically why the theological traditions of Christianity carry the potential to transform society into the Kingdom of God.

Our ancestors in the faith understood the importance of doing that. Now it’s our turn.

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Brazen Women, Cross-Dressers, and Canine Caskets

That’s one way to summarize the recently concluded 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, and apparently the preferred way for no less an American institution as the Wall Street Journal.

Religion can make people a bit crazy. But what exactly is in the New York City water supply that would lead a WSJ writer to describe General Convention as a spectacle of “sheer ostentation” loaded with a “carnival atmosphere”?

Was WSJ’s Mr. Akasie writing under the influence of martinis (a fault of my own, which I freely admit) when he described the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church “brazenly” carrying her staff of office? Brazenly, really? Or perhaps it was a martini or two later that led him to describe Bishop Jefferts Schori as “secretive and authoritarian” during her “reign” thus far. (Anyone who knows her – as I do – finds that ludicrous in the extreme.)

Granted, name-calling is actually quite effective – but in grade school. Presumably we leave behind such childish behavior in adulthood, and if not in our personal lives, then certainly in our professional lives and most certainly if we’re reporting news or even commenting on it in the pages of what was once a prestigious newspaper.

The WSJ was not alone in its bizarre spin on the business of the Church in Indianapolis. Bloggers are of course free-range anyway, but some online sites have come to be trusted locales for thoughtful reflection and reporting. Belief.net used to be one of those trusted sites. Alas, that train left the station some time ago.

If anyone needs any further evidence for Belief.net’s demise, the recent screed by its “senior editor” about General Convention should suffice. There we learn that the pioneering action of Convention to include gender identity and gender expression in the church’s non-discrimination canons amounts to an endorsement of “cross-dressing clergy.” (Seriously, I couldn’t make this stuff up.)

If nothing else, the Wall Street Journal and Belief.net make The Rev. Dr. Kendall Harmon look reasonable and mainstream by comparison. I wrote just recently about Fr. Harmon’s description of the Convention as “unbiblical, unchristian, unanglican, and unseemly.” (I will try to resist wondering whether Fr. Harmon paid these other writers to look foolish…)

So, yes, religion can make people temporarily insane. I get it. But here’s what I believe is the real take-away from all this absurd reporting on General Convention: religious patriarchy is shuddering in its last gasps.

I’ve written on this before (here) and it’s not going away. So here are just two more reasons why all of us who care about the gloriously peculiar faith of Christians need to focus our attention on male privilege, and then I’ll add a final Pauline note. (Oh, and don’t miss this great piece from the Bishop of Arizona about similar topics.)

1. Men Aren’t Brazen (Even When They Are)

So when’s the last time you heard the Archbishop of Canterbury described as “brazen”? I might be out of touch with language on the street, but I have never, ever heard the kind of description of a male bishop that Mr. Asakie used to describe the Most Rev. Katherine Jefferts Schori:

Bishop Jefferts Schori is known for brazenly carrying a metropolitan cross during church processions. With its double horizontal bars, the metropolitan cross is a liturgical accouterment that’s typically reserved for Old World bishops. And her reign as presiding bishop has been characterized by actions more akin to a potentate than a clergywoman watching over a flock.

Where in the world does anyone begin to parse that bizarre paragraph? I would of course love to know what it means to carry a cross “brazenly.” Did this man pass high school English? More to the point: Women are “brazen”; men never are, even when they do exactly the same things.

Still more: why the gratuitous description of our Presiding Bishop’s tenure as a “reign”? That word might well have appeared in stories about the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Pope or occasionally other male bishops, but not very often.

The Presiding Bishop leaving General Convention (thanks, Susan Russell). Note: no “brazen” staff in hand.

God forbid that women reign over anything.

2.  Men in Dresses Kill Puppies

Ludicrous? Yes. Nonsensical? Yup. But that’s what we get when we combine the Wall Street Journal with Belief.net. Mr. Asakie took great pains to include the resolutions concerning liturgical rites for companion animals in his article (apparently just the attention to non-human animals is enough to spark ridicule, and that speaks volumes).

Meanwhile, on Belief.net, Rob Kerby finds news from General Convention “stunning” and for mostly the same gendered reasons:

The headlines coming out of the Episcopal Church’s annual U.S. convention are stunning — endorsement of cross-dressing clergy, blessing same-sex marriage, the sale of their headquarters since they can’t afford to maintain it.

A friend of mine on Facebook said it all (and I paraphrase a bit): “Men who dress like mothers and insist on being called ‘Father’ are objecting to transgender inclusion?” Well, indeed. But that’s not all. Please do not miss that property management and finances are linked in a single paragraph to gender issues: women can’t deal with money. (Oh, I am so glad my mother is not reading this…)

Look, if a supposedly “senior editor” at belief.net equates transgender concerns with “cross-dressing,” we have some issues to discuss, not least would be how men treat all those who don’t “dress” like creatures worthy of care, respect, and dignity – like non-human animals.

The link between misogyny and animal abuse deserves its own blog post, and I’ll do that soon. For now, suffice it to say that the denigration of women and the facile dismissal of the rites for companion animals belong to an important constellation of issues around male privilege.

3. St. Paul Screwed Things Up – Thank God

Don’t even try to create a coherent theology from Paul’s New Testament letters. I think it’s much more fruitful to notice where Paul gets carried away, where he waxes eloquent and crazy. Where he just can’t contain himself because of the wildness of the Gospel and pushes all the known boundaries, his own included. There are many examples of this in his letters. I have Galatians 3:28 in mind right now.

I know that’s overused. It’s critiqued, parsed, sliced and diced to within an inch of its life. But let us try to listen again to Paul’s exuberance: “In Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.”

Just try putting yourself back in first century Palestine, a Roman province, and consider the implications of what Paul wrote. He upended, overturned, dismantled, and dissolved all the basic social and religious distinctions shaping his society.

Whatever that biblical passage might mean for us today (and there are so many things!), surely it’s time to rethink how much energy and time and money is spent on maintaining gender role distinctions – okay, let’s be honest: male privilege. That would actually be a rather modest reading of Paul’s letter, but let’s just start there.

Those of us in Christ would no longer describe women as “brazen” when they do the same thing as men. We would no longer describe gender difference with terms that men use to belittle women. We would no longer abuse non-human animals as if they were women. Actually, we wouldn’t abuse anything at all.

I think that might count as progress. And if Christians actually lived this peculiar faith, journalists might be less willing to look so terribly foolish.

Oh, and lives might be saved, too…

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“Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something…”

I sat transfixed by my Twitter feed for the last two days. Trust me: that’s unusual. I was watching two historic votes unfold at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Indianapolis, where I really longed to be, but couldn’t.

Both votes concerned the same resolution: whether to approve the provisional use of a liturgical rite to bless the lifelong covenants of same-sex couples. It passed in both houses of the convention by wide margins and I was glad to see it happening “live” on my computer. (Here’s the report on that vote.)

I was grateful for that Twitter feed for another reason: I could see how those opposed to this resolution were responding. Their responses were not surprising, but they did remind me of the old English Victorian ditty about weddings, “something old, something new…”

The objections seemed to orbit around a deep concern that this resolution represented a “new” theology of marriage (even though the approved materials were not about marriage per se, nor is the approved liturgical rite a “wedding”; the materials were instead concerned with the “blessing of a lifelong covenant”).

One longtime objector to the full inclusion of LGBT people in the Episcopal Church, a priest and a theologian, described this historic moment as “unbiblical, unchristian, unanglican, and unseemly.” Needless to say, I believe this moment is instead Biblical, Christian, Anglican, and not only seemly but holy. (Read his brief statement here.)

Testimony offered during General Convention 2012

I feel privileged to belong to a church where these divergent opinions are aired, debated, prayed over, and voted on. No one is compelled to agree with the final decision. All are welcome to stay. Indeed, LGBT people have stayed for many decades, even when their institutional church home appeared committed to excluding them.

A diverse Christian body (as St. Paul noted in at least two of his letters) is a healthy Christian body. And I believe we learn the best from those with whom we disagree. I’m grateful for the objections to Resolution A049 (which approved the same-sex blessing materials) because they have further honed my own theological thinking.

Here I’ll share just a few of many insights those objections have prompted, some of them old, some of them new…. (Full disclosure: I had the great privilege of contributing to those materials approved by the convention, so I write here as someone with a good bit of knowledge about the theological rationale.)

Something Old
One objector was very clear: this resolution will change the Christian theology of marriage. Really? Which theology is that? Choose one from among, oh, a dozen in Christian history so we can know what’s changing. Perhaps it’s St. Paul’s version (who believed that marriage was mostly a distraction from the more important work of ministry); or maybe it was Tertullian’s (who believed that Christian marriage was a counter-cultural critique of Rome’s patriarchal household); or maybe it was St. Augustine’s (who thought sex was a rather distasteful aspect of marriage and much preferred friendship). One might also want to mention the 13th century ecclesial statutes about how priests ought to treat their concubines…

There’s some good stuff and bad stuff in the Christian history of marriage theologies. Which will we choose and why? The materials approved at General Convention tried to present some good stuff for all of us to consider.

Something New
Biblical and historical material about committed, intimate relationships is remarkably varied. Those of us who labored over the materials for General Convention were committed to bringing those varied historical traditions to bear on an ostensibly “new” cultural situation: the loving, fruitful, and committed relationships of lesbian and gay couples.

This commitment is actually both new and old. Just ask African Americans about the history of marriage during slavery, or anti-miscegenation laws (forbidding “mixed-race marriages” which weren’t overturned until a 1967 Supreme Court decision). Or just ask women about the history of being treated legally as property by their husbands (that’s more modern than most people would care to realize).

The genius of Anglican Christianity resides in part in its ability to adjust and adapt to shifting cultural patterns while doing so with deep theological commitments. Asking the English reformers of the 16th century about all this would be wildly illuminating.

“New” is not synonymous with “bad” nor is it a cypher for “better.” We need deep and sustained theological reflection about change, and I believe the materials approved at General Convention provide the tools to do precisely that (and I can’t wait for their published form later this year so that we can start using all of this great stuff!).

Something Borrowed
Those of us who worked over the last 2.5 years to craft the materials for this General Convention were deeply committed to Scripture and Tradition. Like any other matter of concern for Christians, this is a challenge. How do we reflect theologically about new things in relation to old things?

We do so by borrowing from the spiritual inspiration of our ancestors. In this case, we did that by turning to the rich symbols and spiritually textured images of “covenant” in the biblical witness and historical traditions. The covenant God made with Noah, the covenant God made with Abraham, the covenant God made with the people of Israel, the covenant God made in Christ.

God calls of us to reflect that grace of these covenantal moments in the relationships we form and nurture. Marriage can do that, so can a monastic vow, so can ordination, so can deep friendships, and so can the lifelong committed relationships of same-sex couples.

Yes, I realize that I have used a wedding ditty to organize my reflections here. While General Convention did not approve a “wedding” liturgy for provisional use, its approval of a blessing liturgy signals a vitally important conversation Christians in all denominations need to engage: Why do we Christians want to bless relationships in church? Why does this matter?

So here I’ll return to that ditty and note this: the task groups who created these materials rooted their work above all in the gracious covenant God made with humanity in Jesus Christ. That covenant is made visible in the sacrament of baptism, which evokes the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, the very source of our common life as Christians.

Hey! There it is! We can find the last bit of that Victorian wedding ditty in the waters of baptism…

“….something blue.”

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Blessed by a Blessing: Poised on the Brink of Liberation

LGBT people are a blessing to the Church. Many of us already knew this. Now we can start talking even more about why it matters for everyone.

Today the Episcopal Church took two remarkable steps forward. Sadly, the Church of England took a remarkable step backward. These two Christian bodies are related in a “communion” that really does need some relationship therapy – and right there we might find a blessing.

Two steps forward and one step back is actually rather common in the history of institutional Christianity. Christians tend to leap forward, lurch around, and lag behind, sometimes all at the same time. To me, this is not surprising at all. We’re all trying to figure out the Mystery we call God in relation to the mystery of our own lives and the ever-changing cultural patterns around us. If you can trace a straight line through that maze, it’s probably a mistake. The “lurching around” is itself a blessing.

None of us can ever capture the Mystery in our midst. But we do have clues in the revelatory life of Jesus and from the Holy Spirit working continually among us. Among the many bright spots of a church paying attention to those clues, there are three on my mind just now: 1) the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church; 2) the inclusion of gender identity and gender expression in the non-discrimination canons of the Episcopal Church; and 3) the adoption of theological and liturgical resources for the blessing of same-gender unions in the Episcopal Church.

The latter two happened just today; the first one in 1976. (Read a great piece on transgender inclusion by my friend and colleague Susan Russell; read a cool Twitter thread on the same-gender blessings resolution here.)

There will be much blogging, bloviating, and opinionating on these General Convention moments. Here I will offer just one bit of reflection on why it matters, and it’s just this: I am blessed by the blessing of transgender people and by the blessing of same-gender couples. Today the Episcopal Church took two important steps in acknowledging that mutual blessing.

“Mutual blessing” may sound a bit arcane, but I think it cuts to the very heart of the matter, not only for LGBT people but for women more generally and also for the whole Church (and actually, for the wider society – this stuff matters for LGBT teenagers who think that suicide is their only way out).

The document presented to General Convention concerning the blessing of same-gender unions is titled, “I Will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing.” That evokes a biblical verse from Genesis when God made a promise to Abram (Genesis 12:2), and it describes not only a biblical rationale for celebrating same-gender unions in Christian communities but also for honoring all of the manifestations of God’s presence among us. (Full disclosure: I chaired the theological resources task group that produced the theological essay in that document.)

Divine blessing overflows in abundance all around us, in countless ways. The Church acknowledges that abundance in its liturgical life by giving voice to that blessing. In turn, that liturgical act blesses all those gathered to witness it and enables all of us to carry that blessing into the world.

I have found this to be true in my own life in many ways, and here again I have three such ways particularly in mind. First, I have been blessed by having ordained women as friends and colleagues. Evidence of the Spirit in their lives is simply unmistakable and my own life would be impoverished without them. Second, I have been equally blessed by friends and colleagues who identify as transgender. Their lives have pushed me, taught me, and inspired me in countless ways. And third, as a single gay man, I have been deeply touched by the hospitality, generosity, and wisdom of the same-gender couples in my life. They are blessed and they are a blessing.

So why do I keep referring to women’s ordination in these reflections? I do so because male privilege and traditions of patriarchal domination infect all three of the blessings I just cited.

The Most Rev. Katherine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church

Sadly, we need look no further for that infection than what just happened in the Church of England. The General Synod seemed poised, finally, to accept women as bishops. But a last-minute amendment to the policy, then rejected, then tabled, then…what, exactly? All that has stalled yet again the full recognition of the blessing of women in church leadership in the Church of England. (Read about that here.)

As we will soon hear from some quarters, there are those in the worldwide Anglican Communion who would argue that the Episcopal Church is held captive by liberal cultural trends; thus today’s decisions. I humbly disagree. Indeed, I believe something quite different: The Gospel has been held captive by patriarchal ideology for far too long. Today we witnessed the next steps of God’s people crossing the Red Sea on dry ground.

Today the Episcopal Church took two remarkable steps toward freeing itself from patriarchal captivity. For the small role I played in this moment of liberation, I am truly grateful. Even more, I am blessed by this divine blessing of a Church that can listen to the Spirit in its midst. Please, God, may the Church of England listen just as well to the women you have called to lead it’