Monday, April 25, 2005

Schleiermacher, Oman, Benedict XVI and the 21st Century

I was never able to complete the post-graduate research degree I was doing in Britain prior to moving across the Atlantic in the 1970s, mainly because I was no longer compliant with the university residency requirements of the time. However, I learned a lot from both the required reading and the course-work that preceeded work on my not quite completed dissertation.

I struggled through seven or eight hundred pages of Friedrich Schleiermacher, the 18th and early 19th Century German who sought to address the faith to the "cultured despisers." I also had to read the Scottish theologian of the early part of the 20th Century, John Oman. These two gentlemen made another of the writers I had to read huge chunks of, John Henry Newman, seem like light relief!

During the last week I have found myself going back to Schleiermacher and Oman to mull over what I learned from them. Schleiermacher considered Scripture the record of the shaping of religious experience, and what he did was to analyze religious experience and distill from it what he then considered to be the essence of faith.

Schleiermacher handles the Scriptures in an entirely different way than anyone had to that point, thinking of them not as a collection of divinely-inspired utterances, but as an illustration of the development of religion, and his definition of it as a sense of absolute dependence. This gave him the platform from which to begin the work of redefinition that he engaged in.

In his massive work, "The Christian Faith," Schleiermacher wrote, "All attributes which we ascribe to God are to be taken as denoting not something special in God, but only something special in the manner in which the feeling of absolute dependence is related to him." Sin, therefore, is "an arrestment of the determinative power of the spirit, due to the independence of the sensuous functions."

I could go on, but I think you get the point. This is the original (rather turgid) mine from which 19th and 20th Century liberal Christianity was dug. Schleiermacher is echoed in the likes of Paul Tillich (another of the authors with whose works I wrestled), and John Robinson in his now infamous book, "Honest to God." Experience becomes definitive and that which disturbs our sense of dependence and freedom becomes questionable. Scripture in this tradition is used for illustration, not for authority, and I think these few broad brush strokes shape the influence this mindset has in the battles we fight today.

Benedict XVI is a German who thoroughly understands the seminal influence of Schleiermacher, and it is he who has had me dredging my memory, my bookshelves, and my notes to grapple again with this giant of the Romantic Era. When the Pope talks of the "tyranny of relativism" somewhere in his mind is the divergent track that Schleiermacher guided Christians off on for what is now the best part of two centuries.

We see the last dribblings out of Schleiermacher's influence in the mindset and positions taken by the 21st Century theological progressives and their agenda for the church. The path they are treading will probably be perceived as a massive diversion in centuries from now, but although it is now past its prime it is still incredibly powerful, as we see in ECUSA.

The romanticism that Schleiermacher enriched as well as fed from, taking, as it does, experience as definitive, has leeched its way into every facet of the western mindset to such an extent that "I feel" is almost synonimous with "I think." Historic evidence becomes less important than the senses, which then leads into a "willingness to jettison traditional teaching in favor of ideas which are apparently more acceptable to modern man" (Colin Brown, Philosophy and the Christian Faith, London: IVP, 1969, page 116).

This is a meager summary of the background to Benedict's agenda as he begins walking in the shoes of the fisherman. He knows that he cannot have the impact that John Paul II had, so is going to aim his arrows at the suzerainty that Schleiermachian thinking has had in the world of western thought and theology. For BXVI there is a core orthodoxy that all catholic (with a small 'c') and biblical Christians can agree upon, and I would hazard he will make this the setting in which he will gather faithful from a variety of backgrounds in this mission.

He is, I think, calling us to look back at what has been the mainstream in the West until very recently, and still dominates in antiquated denominations like ECUSA, and recognize it for the long-term digression that it truly has been. Experience is, by its very nature, relativistic, and it is this that Benedict refuses to accept as definitive, neither is he prepared to read Christian doctrine and tradition through the narrow grid of contemporary experience.

During the last week BXVI has been identified by the American chattering classes with every conservative leader and cause, but this is unfair. I suspect that Benedict, a thoroughly European man, has as many misgivings about the economic and social policies tha dominate the American landscape as this European who has lived here nearly three decades. We need to understand the Pope as a brilliant Catholic mind who thoroughly understands the unraveling that is taking place in contemporary culture. He recognizes that it is only Christian orthodoxy that is able to make thorough sense of the chaotic fluidities of our time. We need to see him through the glasses of faith, not those of sociology and US politics.

This brings me to John Oman, who I mentioned at the beginning. Oman's book, "Grace and Personality," was published 120 years after Schleiermacher, and there is little doubt that he drank deeply at the Schleiermachian well having been one of the primary translators of Schleiermacher's "On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despiers" into English.

I spent many hours in my early twenties being irritated by him because I was finding it hard to understand what he was saying. Only when you recognized that he had undertaken a massive reinterpretation of the fundamental meaning of biblical terms like "grace" did you see the pattern of his thinking. Oman may not be popular today, but he is one of the godfathers of much revisionary thinking in the churches today, because when we do occasionally talk to one another we might use the same words, but the orthodox and the progressives fill them with profoundly different meaning.

The other week at a clergy gathering the word "reconciliation" was being merrily tossed around. Those on the left who were doing the tossing meant something different than I mean as one who seeks to understand reconciliation through the mindset of Scripture. I want to know how the Bible uses the word, fundamentally linked as it is to the reconciling work of Christ upon the Cross, then I want to know how the church has understood the word and concept down through the centuries, so I can put it in today's context.

But at that meeting more threads were at play than just me and them. There were orthodox Christians who thought they knew what the others meant by "reconciliation" without asking them, thus making lots of room for misunderstanding. Added to that there were conservatives who would probably interpret the word "reconciliation" differently than me by putting emphases in different places, or may not fully understand the biblical concept themselves.

How we use language and how we define words, ideas, doctrines, etc., is going to be an incredibly important part of the task of recovery and renewal in the church in the years ahead. I am coming to the conclusion that all that is happening is a painful but God-given opportunity. Conservatives and liberals, progressives and traditionalists, whatever label you put on them, have all become theologically lax. The Apostles, the Fathers, and the magisterial Reformers would shrug in horror at some of the stances of both liberals and conservatives alike -- and in all denominations.

Benedict looks as if he is going to be working on a tightening up the intersection of faith and doctrine in the Catholic Church. I suspect he will be painted as an inquisitor by those who don't like him, but that is more likely to be mud flung than anything else. As a son of the Reformation I am sure I am going to find myself in disagreement with some of his ideas and stances, I suspect that we will be far closer in principle than I am to my "liberal" sisters and brothers in ECUSA because we have a common understanding of revelation and the honor we should give to the church's tradition.

Cleaning up is always very necessary after a party -- and there has been a riotous party going on for the last several generations. In the cold morning light of the early 21st Century we are now dealing with the garbage, the mess, and the residue.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Cube and the Cathedral -- A Review

"The Cube and the Cathedral" by George Weigel (New York: Basic Books, 2005, 202 pages) US$23.00 ($15:64 at

Review by Richard Kew

Mona Charen is hardly one of my favorite columnists, but when I saw a reference to George Weigel's just-published book, "The Cube and the Cathedral," in one of her pieces the other day I decided that it was a must-buy. I was intrigued by what she said about it, and have much respected the writing of Weigel since reading his biography of John Paul II some years ago.

A short book, really little more than an extended essay, what Weigel is doing is to write one of the first credible attempts at addressing the problem of European decline and decay. For the last dozen years he has been teaching each summer in Krakow, Poland, and this has given him an outsider's inside view of life in Europe, and from a distinctly different perspective -- that of Central Europe looking westward. As a European, I have found that most writing by Americans about Europe has been far from adequate, but Weigel is much more observant and perceptive than most.

He starts by suggesting that recent assessments of Europe have been one- or two-dimensional, rather than having a three-dimensional depth because they have either not noticed or ignored the religious and spiritual dimension of the challenges facing Europe. This is hardly surprising, given the precipitative decline of faith on the old continent in the last several generations. So, starting as a conservative Catholic we find him wondering aloud.

Why is it, he asks, that European politics have become so irrational? What is the reason for dwindling productivity? Is Europe retreating from democracy into a stultifying bureaucracy? Why are populations plummeting? I could go on with the questions he puzzles over, but at their root is a much more significant question, why is it that "so many of Europe's public intellectuals are so Christophobic? (Page 19).

That, is the crux of the issue and was symbolized in the passionate and highly successful efforts to exclude from the new constitution of the European Union any reference whatsoever to Christianity's contribution to democracy and human rights. This 70,000 word document that has been drawn up, fiercely contested, and is now being put to referenda in EU countries, jumps straight from the Classical era's contribution to Europe's political base to the Enlightenment. It would appear that in a radically secular age the Christian contribution is being deliberately downplayed, ignored, axed.

(As an ironic aside, it looks very likely that a major country is about to reject the Constitution and therfore declare it moot. I had expected that the 'No' vote that sent it down the toilet would come from the United Kingdom, but unless things change in the next week or two it is likely to be the French citizenry who are shouting "Non, Non, Non!")

This denial of Christian history could be, Weigel muses, the reason why Europeans are developing an increasingly bizarre approach to, and denial of, death, and the seeming determination of folks all across Europe to commit demographic suicide. The massive drop in birthrates that has taken place in the last couple of decades augers the beginnings of a depopulation that Niall Ferguson describes as the greatest "sustained reduction of European population since the Black Death in the Fourteenth Century" (Page 21).

Weigel is concerned to look at these realities not only because what happens in Europe profoundly effects North America, but also because the USA is rapidly approaching the same crisis of civilizational morale that Europe is already tumbling into. If Europe totters in this way, then America is in an awful lot of trouble.

What Weigel does with great brilliance is to set Europe's crisis (one that Europe seems hardly willing to face up to) within the perspective of history. This has been coming for a while, and this continent seems unwilling to recover from what it did to itself in the Twentieth Century. The starting point of the downward spiral was prior to World War I, but it was that "rage of self-mutilation" that set hellish circumstances into motion that did not fully run their course until 1989 and the collapse of Communism, symbolized by the demolition of the Berlin Wall.

Once all this had worked its way through the European system it was then necessary to pick up on where it might have been going after the best part of a century of bloody detours. Yet intolerable damaged had been done. The "European problem" which had been on hold through the battles with totalitarianism cut far more deeply than the political and the psychological.

Yet ideas have consequences, and bad ideas have lethal consequences. It seems to have been the wrong lessons that Europe learned from its 20th Century writhings, so that it now believes human greatness requires the rejection of the self-revealing God in favor of atheistic humanism. Given this propensity, we can expect things to go badly wrong. After having spent the 20th Century in a blender, Europeans have convinced themselves that to be modern and free they must be radically secular. It is this 'gospel' that is enshrined in the European Constitution, a document that by its exclusion of the Christian contribution is shaped by half-truth at best and outright lies at the worst.

"The Christophobia of contemporary European high culture" turns things upside down. "Christianity cannot be acknowledged as one of the primary sources of European democracy because the only public space safe for pluralism, tolerance, civility, and democracy is, on this telling, a public space that is thoroughly a-theos. It is very strange" (Pages 109-11). When truth rooted in God is denied there is only relativism and skepticism left, and no compelling notion of truth that by its very nature requires us to be tolerant, civilized, and democratic.

Weigel goes on to say, "The Church only asks to be permitted to enter into the conversation with those Others... Christians can 'give an account' of their defense of the Other's freedom, even if the Other, skeptical and relativist, finds it hard to give an account of the freedom of the Christian" (Pages 111-112). Even if it took a while to learn the lesson, the Church recognizes publicly that acts of coercion are offensive to its own identity and doctrine. Relativists and skeptics have not reached that point, and have no tools to get them there.

Weigel was very close to JPII and quotes him liberally. The late Pope recognized that there is a growing need for hope, but the radical secularism within which western Europe has imprisoned itself offers no way out. There is a fear of the future, inner emptiness, existential fragmentation, weakening of the very concept of family, diminishing births, and "a growing lack of concern for ethics and an obsessive concern for personal interests" (page 118). The outcome of radical secularism is hopelessness, and Europe is dying because it has bought into and given credence to a false story.

Weigel concludes his pondering with a series of scenarios of what might happen in Europe, from a renewal of confidence in its Christian heritage to muddling through to an alternative religious future that would be considerably shaped by Islam. Each scenario is plausible and should be read with care. It is a long shot in Weigel's opinion that Europe's present configuration will either produce "paradise," or whether it will work in the medium and long term. In 1914, as World War I was cranking up, Sir Edward Grey said that the lights were going out all over Europe -- and this is so if it continues on its present trajectory.

This is important to America, Weigel asserts, because North American culture stands on the shoulders of European. It is from this root that the American experiment grew, and if it is in trouble then it will have a profound influence on what happens on the western side of the Atlantic. Added to that, Europe's security is America's security, and if things go badly wrong there the implications are pretty nasty for here. "We sever ourselves from our civilizational roots if we ignore Europe in a fit of aggravation or pique" (Page 137). Besides, America is not without its own Achilles' heels.

I read this book as a European living in exile, because as I get older I realize that roots are stronger than the paper of citizenship that I happen to carry. If the Lord spares us and our plans work out, we will return to this Europe that Weigel describes to live out the residue of our days. Our elder daughter and son-in-law are well settled in the English Midlands, and it looks as if our soon-to-be-born granddaughter will grow up as a little English girl. Thus, like generations of Kews before us we have a passionate commitment to what happens in the land that has nurtured us since 1066.

This means that for me Weigel's observations are more than just interesting theories, they have to do with the warp and woof of the latter years of my earthly existence, and with the future of my children, grandchildren, and beyond. While I might want to tweak some of his observations, and question some of his insights, I cannot in principle deny the veracity of the bulk of what he says, and it both disturbs and challenges me. I wish that he had written this book as a Christian who happens to be a Catholic, rather than as a Catholic - period.

I hear Benedict XVI saying something similar to Weigel, which is hardly surprising given Weigel and Ratzinger's common friendship and association with JPII. Liberal voices are howling in rage at BXVI and are straining his ideas through their own grid of presuppositions. I hear BXVI speaking in a different way than many of them. I hear him as a European Christian deeply concerned about the rejection of absolutes rooted in the self-revealing God in favor of the thin gruel of radical secularity that provides no lasting sustenance. He has put his finger right on the pulse of reality, and the secularists don't like it, and neither to their fellow-travellers on the left within the churches.

The clash of cultures will continue, and it remains to be seen whether that rooted in the true truth of God will reassert itself and change the course of history. This, I believe, is the essence of our mission in the years ahead on both sides of the Pond.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

What to make of Benedict XVI?

So, as the day was drawing to a close in Rome yesterday the smoke went up the chimney and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Benedict XVI in one of the shortest conclaves in centuries. I was driving away from a lunch engagement when I heard the news on the radio in my car, listened all the way home, watched some stuff on television yesterday evening after getting home from a meeting, and pondered it considerably as I took my early morning walk with Freddy, our dog.

I had bet a colleague here in Tennessee a lunch that it would be a Latin American, he insisted they would go with a tried and true Italian. We were both wrong! I guess that I did not expect Ratzinger because it was so obvious -- but clearly the cardinals were not in a mood for imaginative elections, as one distraught liberal Catholic complained last night on Larry King. True, but it seems that continuity and organizational efficiency were the name of the game -- would it have been fair on anyone who had flair to follow in the footsteps of such a charismatic figures of Karol Wojtyla? He would never have measured up.

Here is my take on the election as a mere Anglican who never expects to be part of an ecclesial entity that is headed up by the Bishop of Rome.

1. This is a long interim. That isn't to say that Benedict XVI will do nothing significant, to the contrary. Well-led interims can often be some of the most productive times in a congregation's life, somewhat like the wilderness journey in the Christian life individually lived. However, at seventy-eight BXVI is not going to be gracing us with his presence for as long as his predecessor. This, perhaps, was a wise move.

2. This is a time of consolidation. JPII did a lot, but he really didn't look after the organization, now that organization has a clear-minded German tending the store. Whether this is good or not, I do not know, not being of the Roman persuasion, and not being an expert on what goes on behind the walls of the Vatican, or any Roman bishop's offices for that matter.

3. BXVI's election is evidence that orthodox doctrine is important. Ratzinger's career has been one systematically rejecting the innovations that popped up in the Sixties in favor of something much more grounded in the church's history and tradition. Liberal Christians everywhere in the world, Catholic and non-Catholic, cannot get much comfort from this.

Alister McGrath wrote a number of years ago that, "Much radical theological writing of the 1960s seems to have been based on the assumption that the new cultural trends of the period were actually permanent changes in Western culture. Yet, looking back, it can be seen that this period merely witnessed a temporary change of cultural mood, which some were foolish enough to treat as a fixed and lasting change in the condition of humanity" (Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity, 1994, page 90).

While I think that Alister is being a little optimistic about the wider culture, certainly I think he has the measure of theological scholarship and thought. BXVI's election is further evidence that the general drift is away from the theological craziness that has dogged us.

BXVI is a bastion of trinitarian Christianity rooted in the uniqueness of the incarnation as the way to salvation. That he has little time for trendiness is not going to make for comfortable years for Roman Catholics who are more comfortable with the revisionist left of the mainline denominations rather than the faith once delivered to the saints. The question is whether orthodox Christians outside of Rome are going to find BXVI a comfortable bedfellow -- and that remains to be seen.

4. The election of a German to this high office is evidence that Rome is deeply concerned about the spiritual future of Europe. The decline of the faith in the whole of western Europe has been breathtaking. In last week's Economist there was an article on the comparative situations of the RCs and the Anglicans in Britain. What was fascinating was that despite trumpeting that the Romans are doing better numbers-wise, the graph of the decline in Average Sunday Attendance in the last dozen years was horrifying for both denominations.

Europe is the sick man of the Christian world, and by electing a German rather than someone from the Global South the cardinals were reaching out in some way to the masses of Europe caught in the flow of radical secularism.

5. BXVI's election is evidence to me that conciliar ecumenicalism is dead. That the scrabble to find the lowest common denominator around which Christians can unite is over, and the misdirected efforts of what passed for Christian unity will be finding another way forward. I happen to believe that a far greater level of cooperation is necessary for Christians, particularly where there backs are against the wall in places like Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and many parts of the USA. However, it will not be around those morsels that we can find in common, but around a red-blooded, creedal, theologically rich understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

Ratzinger sent a letter of encouragement to the first Plano gathering of orthodox Anglicans in an unfaithful ECUSA in the fall of 2003, I suspect we might see more reaching out of this kind. Could it be that this will be the beginning of a new ecumenism that will work better in the 21st Century? Again, only time will tell.

So, there are my thoughts on Benedict XVI. May the Lord guide him so that the church around the world, Catholic and otherwise, is strengthened. Could this unlikely figure be a Bishop of Rome who can build on the legacy of JPII and organizationally provide a measure of networked leadership to those of us who walk in the historic way of the faith? We will see.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Connecticut Six and an Interesting Coincidence

As many of you know, Andrew Smith, Bishop of Connecticut, has been involved for a while now in a stand-off with six faithful biblical priests in his diocese. I would hazard that as the months have passed lines have hardened, and from Smith's statement it appears to be an issue of authority.

"I reminded the rectors of the six parishes of their ordination vows in this church, that they would serve "together with [their] bishop." Communion with the bishop is a precursor to consider other matters that are before us. By leaving the meeting tonight without acknowledging my authority as their bishop they have placed themselves under threat of inhibition by refusing to live within their vows. I regret that we were unable to reach accord this evening. I shall continue to pray for them."

Obviously, I don't know what happened at that meeting and I don't know the detailed ins and outs of this conflict, but there is something tragic about a bishop whining that clergy in his diocese will not accept his authority -- ecclesial authority is earned as much as it is given. There also must be something very significant going on for these individuals, some of whom I know, to refuse to function as Smith
requires. Thus, he uses as Canon that was conceived for very different reasons, to persecute them.

Earlier in his statement before the paragraph I have quoted above, Smith says,

"The fundamental organization for mission and life within the Episcopal Church is a geographical area called a diocese, whose head is its bishop. That principle was established at the first ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. The historic ministry of the bishop is to be shepherd of a diocese. The shepherd's staff that the bishop carries in worship symbolizes the bishop's care, in the name of Jesus, for everyone in the diocese. The relationship to the whole diocese is fundamental for
the Episcopal Church, no matter what the time or situation or issue. For the past 11 months, six rectors of the Diocese of Connecticut, together with the leadership of the parishes they serve, have refused to accept their relationship with their bishop."

Now I find it interesting that Nicaea is being used as precedent for this situation by the bishop because it is clear that the actions taken by ECUSA of which he is party stand in firm opposition to the doctrinal teaching of Nicaean Christianity. I would say to Bishop Smith that you can't pick and choose from the history of the church what teachings suit you. If you want geographical dioceses using the precedent of Nicaea as your support, then you have to hang with Nicaean doctrine and theology. This means an acceptance of the canonical books of Scripture and what
they teach.

Bishop Smith diverged from Scriptural doctrine and the historic tradition of the church but still demands obedience to Nicaean structures. He seems to want it both ways, and that is not consistent. He is, in effect, saying, "I want to be a heretic when it comes to theology and ethics, but I want to be orthodox when it comes to historic structures, because it is from these historic structures that I derive my authority. I want to have bishops in the church who have geographical dioceses who are living in an immoral relationship, but I will not accept Nicaean Christians in my geographical diocese who oppose such a compromise with a fallen culture with heart, soul, mind, and strength. I want tolerance, but I define tolerance MY way."

Meanwhile, and here's the coincidence, the Anglican Communion News Service sent out today a story about the Church of Aortearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia, who are celebrating a new bishop, a Pacific Islander, who works in New Zealand with people of his own ethnicity.

"Pacific Islanders gathered at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Parnell last night (Sunday, April 17) to celebrate their first locally-based Anglican bishop. The Rt Revd Dr Winston Halapua, who was born in Tonga, but a Fiji citizen, has been installed as the first Bishop for the Diocese of Polynesia in New Zealand. He was inducted by Bishop Jabez Bryce, the Suva-based Diocesan Bishop of Polynesia, supported by a number of local Anglican bishops - and welcomed by a congregation of about 500, many of whom were decked out in traditional Polynesian finery."

Here we see Anglicans who have faithfully followed the guidelines of the Lambeth-Chicaco Quadrilateral, and who have adapted the historic episcopate to the needs of the 21st Century. In this area of the Pacific, and specifically in New Zealand there are three Anglican structures overlaid upon one another, and function in such a manner that white settlers, Maori, and Polynesians are ministered to in culturally
appropriate manners. Even in the Episcopal Church we accept the validity of this need with a non-geographical Diocese of Navajoland, but while it would be politically incorrect and pastorally insensitive to question this arrangement, we will bring the whole force of the law against priests who find it intolerable working with a bishop who has abandoned Nicaea.

Structural flexibility is possible when there is a will to unity, but I do not see a will to unity among those who hold heterodox theologies in ECUSA. Have the Connecticut Six handled themselves well? I don't know. I suspect there are things they might have wished they had done differently, but now they have painted themselves (or been painted) into a corner. The bishop has done the same thing. Without protracted external intervention this is only going to end in tears -- and worse. We can only hope that the Archbishop of Canterbury and the wider
Communion involves itself in this situation and seeks to bring about relief.

Monday, April 11, 2005

The Dominant Motif Of Our Age is Denial

I was driving home in a blinding rainstorm the other evening, my brain having clicked onto an idea during a fallow moment of the gathering I had been attending. The result was that I found myself trying to think things through as well as keep the car on the road! Just before leaving the house earlier that evening I had read an article by Paul Krugman fed to our local paper from the NY Times that suggested that liberal academics were the folks who were much more in touch with reality than many Christians.

While I could not, and did I wish to deny some of the evidence he was coming up with, the article was a robust attack on all those whose understanding of research (and the systematic accumulation of knowledge) is interpreted through the lens of God's self-revelation. We are condemned as irrational. I would hazard Krugman had been reading the recent book of Dick Taverne, a veteran British politician, that says much the same point, but a great deal more viciously.

Now I know liberal academia pretty well having lived in and around universities and colleges for my whole adult life. I am also married to a woman who teaches in a State University, so can vouch from personal observation that liberal academics are influenced by the same forces of irrationality that shape our culture -- and are no more likely to be rational thinkers and realists than anyone else. If anything, some of them because of their love affair with deconstructionist attitudes are even more detached from reality than the average run of Americans, Christian or otherwise.

The Krugman article came on top of something I heard said by the Roman Catholic theologian and observer, George Weigel. He suggested that Descartes should be spinning in his grave right now because the enlightenment process of reasoning that he pioneered in an attempt to help people think rationally has deteriorated into subjectivity and wishful thinking. I think Weigel is right, and I also share his conviction that it is within the church that we are more likely to find the rationality and objectivity that the postmodern world has abandoned -- except, of course, in the thinking of those in the church who have reinterpreted both life and gospel with postmodern presuppositions.

My subconscious mind had been working on this melange of data, and it hit me during that rainstorm driving home that perhaps the dominant motif of postmodern culture is one of denial. As the rain lashed the windshield and the wind shuddered the car, I found myself trying to remember details of a book I had read several years ago. It was "Life the Movie," by Neil Gabler, writer and movie oficienado.

Gabler's thesis is that entertainment has taken over everything. "After decades of public-relations contrivances and media hype, and after decades more of steady pounding by an array of social forces that have alerted each of us personally to the power of performance, life has BECOME an art, so that the two are now indistinguishable from each other" (page 4). He goes on to quote Daniel Boorstin, who observed that the techniques of theatre have been applied to politics, religion,
education, literature, commerce, warfare, crime, literally converting them into branches of show business. He describes this as a cultural Ebola virus because that has so infected our cultured that the temptation is now to interpret all life through a veil of make believe.

If, as many think, postmodernity is the outcome of the decay of the enlightenment mindset, then it is inevitable that style and image should be thought more important than substance and objectivity. Neither should we be surprised that today fiction and fact have become so intertwined that increasingly we are unable to tell the difference. We watch docu-dramas as if they are fact, and are used to good-looking movie actors playing rather ordinary-looking people like C. S. Lewis and Joy Davidman Lewis. Celebrities who are famous for being famous are fawned over more than accountants (most of whom work to keep us honest and real), and narcisistic college basketball coaches take home paychecks far in excess of that which is paid to the President of the USA. Yes, there is little doubt that life is mediated to us through the gauze of entertainment, and we are losing touch with reality.

The dark underside of all this is that when reality, rationality, objectivity do assert themselves, denial (often passionate) is the response. Klugman's article makes the assumption that those who listen to revelation have by their faith been programmed to deny the reality of observable fact. I suppose if you believe that the world was made in six 24-hour periods 6,000 years ago the case can be made that you are not looking at all the evidence, or are interpreting the evidence that is contrary to this through a grid of your own contriving, but I am not sure this is a mainstream Christian mindset.

Therefore I must take issue with Klugman's suggestion that those of us who take God's self-revelation seriously are per se irrational deniers of reality. Indeed, I would line up with George Weigel and say that because we worship an infinite God who is supra-rational that we have a much better chance of thinking in an objective and rational manner than those who deny such a Creator.

Let me ground this assertion in recent experience. Although I could take a dozen other instances I will focus on the shenanigans that is the Episcopal Church, for they are familiar to many who participate in this listserv. A friend has repeated to me several times in the last few weeks that one of the basic components of good leadership is its ability to correctly view, assess, and respond to reality, taking in the whole picture -- both good and bad. This is as true of business and statecraft as it is of church-craft.

However, we are "blessed" with leaders who are in denial that ECUSA is in a mess. The statistics tell us that we are in deep trouble, but these are spun. The departure from our ranks of some of the brightest and best tell us we are in deep trouble as a denomination, but these folks are written off as troublemakers rather than men and women of principle. The financials tell us we are in deep trouble, but while there are endowments that can be raided. Here among those who read their faith under the influence of the prevailing culture, is the motif of denial hard at work.

I find it interesting that having admitted that as many as one-third of the congregations in his diocese are close to non-viability, the Bishop of Newark has decided announced his impending retirement. While he has excellent personal reasons for doing this, it does mean that he won't have to deal with the problem. It is also highly unlikely that the diocese, probably in denial of many of the realities, will elect a successor who is capable of dealing with the mess, or who will be acceptable to the mainstream of Anglicanism.

I am certain that one of the reasons those of us who are orthodox and biblical within ECUSA have been SO depressed the last couple of years is not just the blatant unfaithfulness of a denomination as it has taken the path of least resistance to the culture, but because we can see the consequences of the actions take. One of the ways in which reality is denied, by the way, is to refuse to accept that actions have consequences. Those of us who have pointed out that this emperor is wearing no clothes are being virulently attacked and hounded out of ECUSA for suggesting there are some fundamental truths that are being ignored (or rewritten).

This means that when most of us who are orthodox look at the reality of all that is going on around us shake our heads in frustration and disbelief. Can't they see, we say to one another, that ECUSA isn't like the Titanic that merely grazed an iceberg, but that our leaders in 2003 steered the boat straight at the thing -- and at full speed! Neither have they changed course since then. When we point this out denial steps in and we are told we are naysayers and troublemakers. Some of our number are even being turfed out because we say the compass needle points north, and not north, south, east, or west, depending on how you want to deconstruct and reconstruct the words on the face of the compass.

To say, "We have acted prophetically," is to live in total denial. Prophetic actions should build up, these are tearing down at a terrifying rate. Prophets speak the truth and point in a true direction, false prophets do otherwise -- and God says to false prophets, "Sorry, guys, I do not know you."

Every successful business executive I have ever come across works the numbers avidly. He/she wants the facts because their future depends on it. They get alarmed at even the slightest downturn in sales, profits, or whatever, and want to know why, and whether it is possible to put things right. Sometimes the only answer may be to totally remake the company. Nevertheless, what we are being treated to is the churchly equivalent of having produced an Edsel. Instead of saying, "Hey, folks, we laid an egg," our executives deny this fact and say, "Oh, we were right, the rest of the world will catch up with us. We are going to win this one in the end."

This is denial on a gargantuan scale, but it should not surprise us given the sort of world in which we live, and the fact that those who function in this way have uncritically sold out to the cultural drift of our times -- and the prevailing motif of that society is denial. I am not saying that those of us who are working to face reality from a setting of orthodox presupposition are without our own little denials, but I do think we are less willing to kid ourselves about reality's consequences than those who are at present behind the wheel of this vehicle as its downward plunge accelerates.

I could have chosen any number of other illustrations of the motif of denial in our society. We see it in Washington where federal budgets are managed, let's say, creatively. We see it in the inability of Boomers to accept the realities of aging. It is easier to deny the possibility of global warming than face up to the possible consequences. There is also always this irrational hope that some deus ex machina will appear that will magically straighten out the situation created by our inability to face the facts -- like in the movies.

Forty years ago Francis Schaeffer wrote an extremely helpful if turgid book entitled, "Escape from Reason." It was a great tool that I used with intelligent college and early career types early in my ministry, and it certainly shaped my thinking profoundly. Schaeffer was saying that the alternative approaches to living and believing that people choose other than the self-revealing God and his Son, Jesus Christ, are all when it comes down to it escapes from reason, and he illustrates this using a reasonable procession of arguments, ideas, and observations in light of revealed truth. It is only when we live within the ambit of the revealed Truth that we actually find ourselves capable of thinking rationally.

In the period since then we have seen the chattering classes and opinion formers in the church doing a Houdini-like escape act. First they escaped from Scripture and its authority over them. More recently they have said that they haven't done this but that there are more ways of interpreting the words than we had seen up until now -- however, contortions are needed to get there.

Then there has been a massive escape from Tradition. It has seemed to this onlooker as if everything that belongs to the past has been discarded. Hymns, liturgies, old-fashioned values and way of thinking, that which roots and grounds our faith and thinking in the life of the communion of saints has been surrendered in favor of what Leander Keck called "the banal and the bizarre."

Finally Reason went and the prevailing motif of Denial took over completely...

Saturday, April 02, 2005

The Passing of a Giant -- John Paul II

I was sitting in Lenny's Sub Shop opposite the old factory building that is, for the moment, our church, with Rosemary and two small boys from our congregation having lunch today. In an absent-minded moment I glanced up at the television and saw the news flash that Pope John Paul II had died. I was hardly surprised, but much saddened, a sadness that has hung will me all afternoon. Since reading George Weigel's biography of John Paul II several years ago I have developed the profoundest respect for this great man of faith, who played a major role in changing the face of Europe and the world, as well as exercising a huge influence over the shape of world Christianity for our time -- and beyond.

We live at a moment when these giants of an earlier generation are passing from the scene, individuals whose obedience to Christ has made them beacons of hope in a troubled and confused world. The Pope was a man who was blessed with great gifts of personality and intellect, but instead of using them for gain and aggrandizement, he humbly laid them at the foot of the Cross and asked the Lord to use them as he felt best.

The audience roared its approval when from his surprising perch in Rome he provided an example of leadership for the Slavic peoples that led them to throw off the shackles of totalitarianism. He knew just how evil the Soviet empire was, and stood against its dehumanizing pressures so that eventually it was bound to fall.

However, that same audience was dismayed when John Paul spelled out the theology and philosophy of personhood that undergirded his whole way of thinking. How could this man we so narrow-minded, they said, and now that he was not singing their tune they dismissed him as a worn-out Polish reactionary, an old man who behind the walls of the Vatican has become an irrelevancy. Because the Pope's whole approach to time and eternity began at the foot of the Cross on which the Savior of the world's blood was shed in propitiatory sacrifice, he was painted by contemporary secularists and radical modifiers of the faith alike, as a hang-over from an obscurantist past.

This is because his most basic intellectual and spiritual presuppositions challenged their minimization of the uniqueness of human personhood and identity; neither did he care for the manner in which their trivialization of our race devalued sexuality, reproduction, and the value of the human being made in the image of God. Yet John Paul II will have an enduring legacy, and I suspect that for decades to come his words and writings on the human person will be enduring.

Battles over human sexuality are merely the first clashes in what will be a war over whether we are creatures made in God's image (and therefore finding wholeness within the context of obedience to God and his revelation), and those who believe they have a fresh vision for what it means to be human. These latter are rampant in many areas of endeavor and discovery, believing that they are the ones who will guide the next chapter of human evolution. They have, of course, their fellow-travelers within the churches, John Paul's included, whose arrogance and self-confidence is a strange contrast to the man from Krakow whose eyelids closed in death this afternoon.

I confess that there are elements of John Paul's theology and devotion that trouble me, but I hope that I am humble and perceptive enough to recognize a truly obedient man. His conditioning and faith might vary radically from mine, but he walked the way of the Cross in a manner that I can only envy, and with awe give thanks for. And now he has gone -- leaving big shoes to fill, but he has more than left his mark.

So, I will go to bed tonight with a profound sense of loss for, although an Anglican looking in at the Catholic world from the outside, I identified with John Paul II far more than many in my own ecclesial domain. By this I mean those who have compromised the integrity of the faith, and are in the process of charging over the Gaderene precipice. These Lilliputians so married to the spirit of this age, are likely to be long forgotten in times to come, when the legacy of this giant, John Paul II, will still be riding high.