Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Looking Through Binoculars

The View Through My Study Window

My desk is set near a window so that I can look across the rapidly greening Tennessee countryside, and this morning I was treated to a bevy of turkeys wandering around the field behind the house. Distracted from my work I grabbed the binoculars and perused their behavior for a while, before realizing that these were as good an analogy for something I have been trying to write for several weeks.

The fact is that the view you get depends on which way you look through the binoculars. If I look through them normally I see the turkeys in all their spring glory, strutting across the grass and grubbing around for food. However, if I turn them round the other way the view changes and I can hardly make the birds out at all so distant do they appear to be.

Several weeks ago while reading something by Katharine Schori said to the Diocese of East Tennessee, it dawned on me that her way of thinking is so alien to me because she is looking at the faith and what its implications are from a diametrically opposite way to myself. While it is chi-chi among Episcopalians to put far more weight upon the Baptismal Covenant than it was designed to bear what I realized was that the Presiding Bishop, whether she realizes it or not, is interpreting it from a reverse direction to the way it is set in the Book of Common Prayer -- which reflects the historic approach to believing.

I have come to conclude that one of the reasons why the Millennium Development Goals figure so prominently in Dr. Schori's thinking is that she seems to start into the Baptismal Covenant with the very last question and affirmation: "Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?"

I am not one of those who has real difficulties with the Millennium Development Goals. There is absolutely nothing wrong in striving for justice, peace, and human dignity, and I would assert that these are very important outcomes from believing, but they are outcomes and not the starting point. As one who when called by Christ into his fold was committed to bringing in the Kingdom of God, then obviously justice, peace, and human dignity are part of the mix, and we should chide ourselves and our forebears that so often we have forgotten this.

However, we should not hold our whole way of understanding the faith through the lens of justice, peace, and human dignity. When that happens we come up with a very different perception of what believing is about. The Baptismal Covenant, despite its shortcomings, lays things out in the right order. The starting point is the Trinitarian God who has called us into his family, redeemed us, and made us his own -- then it goes on to the fulness and nature of our response to God's initiative, and the nature of Christian discipleship.

When the last part of the Covenant is made first we immediately start defining the nature of discipleship in our own terms, and that then allows us to define the nature and call of God in light of our own perceptions. As a Christian believer I believe passionately in what might broadly be labelled justice, peace, and human dignity, but I must define what they mean in light of God's nature, God's call, how God has revealed himself, and what God wants me to do and be.

By turning the Baptismal Covenant on its head, I then, in effect, define these elements of the life of faith in my own terms, projecting my own preferences back onto the Godhead. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why so much that comes out of this school of thought in the church reads so much like the platform and manifesto of a left-leaning political party.

Because those on that particular end of the spectrum handle the Baptismal Covenant in this way, it should come as no surprise to us that the whole biblical doctrine of the covenant then gets misconstrued. Reading the Presiding Bishop's stuff, it would seem that she tends to blur the distinction that exists between the covenant community of faith, called to witness Christ into the world, and the whole human race.

Restoring God's people to unity with one another, for example, takes on the a strong social justice flavoring. She says, "The world is not reconciled, as long as some live without..." Well, yes, but neither is the world reconciled when the covenant community of grace fails in its obligation to share the faith which is their stimulus to action as citizens of the Kingdom, witnessing in Christ's name.

One of the great weaknesses of North American Anglicanism is, as a result, pointed up, and that is we want to play down or reinterpret the evangelistic component of the church's mission. This obviously happens because if you wishfully think that all will be redeemed, then there is obviously little incentive to encourage people to surrender their lives to Jesus Christ -- despite the fact that we talk about this in the Baptismal Covenant in no uncertain terms.

The challenges before the world are enormous, and the church is called to follow the leading of God in working with those challenges during these Kingdom times in which we live. Both those who might be called conservatives and those who might be called liberals have not done justice to what the Scriptures teach about bringing in God's Kingdom, and course correction is always necessary

The King has come to claim his own, the bring about transformation, and he calls the covenant community of grace to be partners with him in this task. Yet if our perception of the nature of God and the nature of our call is out of kilter, then we are going to distort the breadth of our vocation.


Charlie Sutton said...

Precisely! The Covenant has to begin with what we believe, and then what we do based on that belief. The first three questions are core, credal Christianity, the next two are the essential disciplines of the Christian life (worship, study of the Scriptures, prayer, sacraments, and ongoing repentance), and the last three are what we do as we grow from the personal disciplines -- evangelize in word and deed, love others, and work for a more just world -- using God's definition of justice, not that of Marx or others.

Robert McLean MD PhD said...

Thanks. It is maddening that the leader of a mainline denomination ascribes to the "do what you feel like", "there are many paths to God", etc. Evangelists, true to Christ's words, say "But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it." The TEC, on the otherhand, undercuts them by offering tickets to heaven for a song.

So there are two circuses in town. One with an admission price of a quarter. The other one has to give up one's very life. The line in the first is long, but the audience will be disappointed with the show.

battery said...

it is cool.