Monday, February 18, 2013

On Theological Authenticity

NB: Strong language.

One aspect of modern Christian life that I know far too well is the experience of disconnect between what is promised in the Scriptures and what is experienced in daily life. I notice this in my students when I talk about our glorification like Christ's on Mt. Tabor. When has this happened to them? Or anyone they know? When have they been so filled with the Holy Spirit as to be legitimately called a "temple" (1 Cor. 6). In my own experience this has usually been explained as something that just "is" without any discernible change or benefit to the individual believer (or the church community). It is, in other words, an unverifiable assumption. To those that, for whatever reason, have been burned in their experience with the church this rings especially hollow: can a "temple of the Holy Spirit" be a pedophile, an arrogant prick, an adulterer, or a hate-monger? Is it possible for the Holy Spirit and Belial to actually live together and partake of one another, or is it impossible as Paul says? (In other words, Paul is writing to the Corinthians that they are in grave danger of losing their experience of the Spirit -- a dire warning as we learn from Hebrews 6. It also assumes that not everyone who was joined to the Corinthian community had had such an experience: note the sexually immoral brother. This is not to say that not everyone has a share in the Spirit, either; but we can quench His work. I hope you can see the gymnastics I'm engaging in just to avoid suspicion of heresy, since our words are so easily misconstrued).

An unverifiable assumption in the realm of theology is dangerous. It is saying that a certain state holds when no evidence, except one's assumed right interpretation of the Scriptures, can be marshaled otherwise. Now, theology is not a hypothesis-verification sort of science, but that doesn't mean anything goes. There are criteria that should be met. What I am seeing my students, and I think it quite astute, is that they are noticing that criteria are not being met. As Dr. Horrible puts it, "The status is not quo."

And so I have seen in the last couple of years, in a variety of ways, many folks either turn their backs on Christ and the Church completely, or cease to pay meaningful attention to what is happening in the life therein. And this is often placed on their backs in the form of passive-aggressive guilt: "They didn't really believe," "Don't they know that we aren't perfect, we're just forgiven," and other platitudes that these disaffected rightly discern as bullshit.

So what do we (I) need to do? Be silent.

We are using words that we have no right to use. We are not "pure of heart," so we have not seen God. The vision of God, however one understands it (and I think the Mt. Tabor Transfiguration experience is probably the best), is reserved for those that have made their hearts ready for inhabiting by the Holy Spirit. If we read Leviticus, or the Prophets, we should note that God takes the purity of His Temple very seriously. I'm not talking, either, about whether you sing the right songs or whether you wear the right clothes. I'm talking about, at a baseline, forgiveness. Jesus says, repeatedly, that if we don't forgive those who have trespassed against us, we won't be forgiven by God (Matthew 6, the parable of the Unjust Steward, etc.). If we don't forgive, we cannot come anywhere close to asserting our right to speak about God, about Christ, about the Christian life in a meaningful way. Maybe it is right for our leaders, every once in awhile, to say that they won't preach a sermon that week, since they have not been able to forgive their spouse, neighbor, friend, enemy, whatever. It is right always, and at all times, for us who are not in formal leadership positions to be concerned with the silent work of logging our eyes, rather than vacuuming those of others.

It is strange, now that I think about it, that the best way to evangelize the world might be to say nothing at all. But it is also strange that God saves the world through the crucifixion of His Son. Strangeness isn't a stranger to Christianity. Forgiveness is the strangest thing in the world, but Christ and His Church tell us -- through the common Life they share -- that it is upon such strangeness that the world is founded.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Holiness as Participation

"I do not pray for these alone [the apostles], but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me." (John 17:20-23)

"In Him [Christ] we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace which He made to abound in us in all wisdom and prudence, having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth -- in Him." (Eph. 1:7-10)

"Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure." (I John 3:2-3)

This post, like many lately, is predicated on my questions concerning theological authority. Specifically, the question of "holiness" in Biblical interpretation. Kenneth Bailey, an excellent Anglican author, puts early interpretive authority in this way (Paul through Mediterranean Eyes, 123):
The ancient Eastern churches did not have scholars or theologians, but rather 'Fathers of the church.' The assumption behind that language is: Only when we see the authenticity of your piety, and your commitment to the church, will we take your scholarship seriously.
Those who were holy had the interpretive keys passed to them (there were exceptions, of course, which the Church is still learning to deal with).

What, though, is holiness? Is it moral purity? Is it "keeping the Law" (whatever that phrase actually means)? I'm inclined to say "yes...but..." Why? Listen to St. Paul:
If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the Law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the Church; concerning the righteousness which is in the Law, blameless. (Philippians 3:4-6)
(It is important here to note that some modern translations, like the NIV, translate the "righteousness" in the last verse as "legalistic righteousness," which is a blatant skewing of what Paul said and is trying to say). Paul here, in his argument, is saying that he had it all right (not sinless, mind you, but blameless -- an honor-shame dynamic is being proffered here, not a legal one): he kept the Law! And what did it mean for him? Holiness? No, but rather persecution of the Church and, therefore, alienation from the Life of Christ. He had a righteousness, a "being-set-right-ness," but it wasn't the right kind. Rather, in Christ (that is, being in union with Him through faith and baptism), "I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead." (vs. 8-11) Being in Christ, participating in His death and resurrection, is the key to righteousness: not what we have done, but what He has done. Holiness isn't our moral efforts, but rather participation in Christ. However, this is not a passive thing, but rather is all our life: note Paul's language that this righteousness is towards knowledge (which means a participatory knowledge, not mere rational assent), towards fellowship in suffering, towards conformity to death. This is an active process that is brought to birth in us through ascesis, through entering and remaining in the Life of Christ at all times and in all places. "Pray without ceasing" he says elsewhere.

Holiness, to get to the point, is not moral action in the traditional sense. In fact, that can lead us the wrong way (either towards believing that we must be moral to gain God's approval or towards thinking that moral behavior is the sin qua non of Christianity). Rather, it is first a participation in Christ, which is manifested in new way of existence that is "righteous," that is, it is set right to God's will for the world: glorification of all things through Christ (Eph. 1:10). To be holy is to be in communion with Christ at what the Fathers called the "noetic" level, that part of human nature that is deeper than rationality, where we can ceaselessly commune with God (I have not yet attained to this level, but I earnestly desire to). The only way to do so, though, is through prayer and forgiveness, not being right all the time, although that is a strong temptation for all engaged in theological studies.