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.

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.

Faithfully Out of Synch: Holy Liminality, Part 2

Now you see him, now you don’t. He’s just a flip-flopper. Back again (yay!); gone again (boo!). Or to quote (Saint) Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, “My, but people come and go here so quickly!”

I could be referring to our crazy-making political climate of late, but I have in mind instead some religious trivia. I actually believe the two go together, or they ought to do so, and rather urgently.

This weekend is a bit religiously messy, chronologically speaking. This past Thursday, Christians celebrated “The Feast of the Ascension.” This marks the moment when the resurrected Jesus “ascends” to heaven (see Luke 24:50-53 and/or Acts 1:6-11, both seem to tell the same story but in significantly different ways).

Okay, so the risen Jesus is now “gone.” But tomorrow is the seventh Sunday of Easter on the Christian calendar. Weirdly, many Christians will hear in church a portion of John’s gospel in which the pre-crucified Jesus is saying farewell to his disciples before he dies (John 17:6-19).

So is Jesus “here,” “there,” or “in between”?

We’re smack dab in the midst of yet another potent time on the Christian calendar, that peculiar liminal time between the ascension and the particular manifestation of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost just a week from now. I wrote a bit about the holiness of liminality roughly seven weeks ago, on Holy Saturday. I love that day, that peculiar day when Jesus is dead, but not yet risen, yet wonderfully busy harrowing Hell. Not least among his glorious tasks is dragging Adam and Eve of their graves (as one particular fresco that I love depicts it).

I truly believe that such religious arcana actually matters for how Christians think about how we live in a world that’s so clearly gone crazy. (Surely I don’t need to catalogue the myriad ways our world has recently gone off the rails.)

To navigate the madness, I seek faithfully to live out of synch with it by taking John’s Jesus to heart when he prays this about his disciples, both then and now: “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world (John 17:16).”

Too many Christians, in my view, have read that verse as a kind of divine permission to absent themselves from “worldly concerns.” To the contrary: I read the Johannine Jesus as urging his disciples to live out of synch with the world’s standards of reasonable, proper, efficient, and respectable proposals for sustaining the way things are.

Among the many ways to read the gospel texts, for example, taking them as testimony to “business as usual” would seem quite a stretch. I cannot imagine any of Jesus’ disciples thinking of themselves as champions of the status quo. Jesus instead seems at nearly every turn to lead his disciples into troubling both the religious and civic order of things. In today’s courts of law they would qualify as “disturbers of the peace” or stand guilty of “disorderly conduct.”

Shouldn’t these pioneers of Christian faith set the standard for the (dis)orderly life of God’s people today? Shouldn’t the Gospel lead all of us who claim to follow it into profound acts of disturbing the cultural peace?

Along with many others, I’ve been noticing just how much religion and politics have been blending of late in our public discourse: whether women actually have any rights over their own bodies; whether couples of the same gender can get married; whether economics ought to have anything to do with the “least among us.” The list goes on and on.

There are many ways to analyze all these confluences of religion and politics. Here’s just one: In an age of profound change and anxiety, the default position is certainty, dogmatism, and safety. The final cry of any civil or religious institution in the throes of fear is, of course, “But we’ve never done it that way before!”

Quite remarkably, that posture is precisely what the Gospel urges Christians to avoid. So what it would it mean to live out of synch with both religious and cultural trends? I don’t know precisely. But I’ll venture this: The dry, institutional certainties of the past (whether civil or religious) won’t save us. Only the scary vagaries of a future we cannot see and for which we risk everything will bring us into the orbit of the risen and ascended Christ.

I’m thinking a great deal about that claim this weekend in my own life. And I’m wondering how it might translate into our public discourse about social policy.

The risen Jesus won’t be tied down and domesticated. Certainty is not a theological virtue. But faith is. And so is hope. And love most especially is. Could we imagine, in this liminal season as we await the Spirit’s manifestation, a politics of risk that privileges love above all else?

That’s precisely what the Apostle Paul urged (1 Corinthians 13:13) – love matters above everything else.

How clichéd can we get? I mean, really. Isn’t that just a Hallmark greeting card we toss into the recycling bin?

But how about this: What if love is what we do in all those in-between times when we can’t figure out what’s really going on? What if love isn’t about certainty or dogmatism or safety or anything else we try to confect to soothe our wounds of anxiety? What if love is mostly about risk without any guarantees?

What if those are the very questions those first disciples of the risen Jesus asked as they watched him disappear into heaven?

Let’s answer those peculiar questions and change the world.