Sunday, September 24, 2006

Exile and Our Return

I was thinking about what to write early this morning and really wasn't getting any ideas. Nothing patristic was jumping to my head. While there is lots of activity in Anglican blogsophere with the reaction to the Global South's meeting this week exploding into the ether, I have made a rule not to make pronouncements on such contentinous topics until I've read news from less impassioned sources (which I haven't done) and until I have time to think, pray and reflect. So, I was a little stumped.

Then, I sat down this morning and read a little bit from Kathleen Norris' Cloister Walk and an idea came to my head. Exile. Why not exile?

I have to admit that I'm particularly susceptible to writing about the experience of exile. Even before I became Christian, I found the Biblical stories which featured exile particularly enticing. I wrote a story in late high school on the experience of the Babylonian exile; not as one whose faith held, but as one who was really not sure about anything (a reflection of my own spiritual state at the time). A few years later, I wrote a Tower of Babel re-write as a goodbye gift for a somewhat estranged friend. In both stories, the experience of exile was very strong, but there really was not prospect that that exile would ever end. What interested me at that time was an experience of forsakenness, a time when faith seems to fail, but life needs to keep going.

In many ways, I think that was an expression of where I was mentally, emotionally and spiritually. At the time, I really couldn't think how a life with God looked, but, in many ways, I felt I was missing something; that I was in exile from something I couldn't quite identify. At the same time as these stories, I was writing essay after essay in university on religious topics and talking to anyone who'd listen about faith and my lack thereof. The irony, of course, is that, in retrospect, I recognize that a friend, who commented gently one night that she thought I had rather more faith than I gave myself credit for, was probably exactly right. How can someone experience feelings of exile, if he didn't have an idea of missing what he is exiled from? In that sense, those feelings of exile were the first stirrings of the grace that would set me on the road of return to God and my home with him.

It took several years, but I, finally, realized that exile, at least in the Christian sense, always contains the promise of return. At least, it does in the Bible. The people of Israel experienced their flight from Egypt and their wanderings in the desert as an exile from the good things of Egypt, but found, perhaps to their surprise, that the land promised to them by God was a better home to return to. Those sent out on the Babylonian exile, to their surprise, found themselves able to return after seventy years. Then, there is us, called to be God's people in this alien world, but knowing that there is a home to which we are returning. We aren't there yet, but I know we're on that road.

It wasn't until I realized that the road to my return from exile was open and had always open that I realized that I had been the one who was wandering aimlessly in the wilderness. It wasn't until I openned myself to God's grace and accepted his working to renovate my life that I started down that road of return. In my heart, I am no different that those Israelites who, wandering in the desert, get distracted by every which thing and have to be prodded back to the road which promised their return. Yet, with God's help, I am on this path and look foward to my return to the home promised me by Jesus.

With that in mind, I offer this poem, this prayer:

I have seen my new country,
Resplendent and full of joy.
I have seen my new country,
Full of hope and grace.
Teach me how to cross
In flood and draught
That Jordan of my soul
To that land
Promised of old.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Tradition and Early Christianity

This week, I've had an interesting discussion with Phil Harland over at Religions of the Ancient World about the canon, which settled into a discussion about the position of (proto-)orthodox Christians in the early Church. We disagreed, which is fair enough, but what the discussion led me to think about what the nature of traditions in an ancient society. The reason for this is that I think Prof. Harland may be assuming that I'm coming from a naive Eusebian position (see Dr. Harland's outline of three classic scholarly positions on the early church here). I'm not, but it takes some explaining to make that clear. So that is what I'm going to try to do.

I think that the key point of difference between what I'm trying to get at and what I may be coming off as trying to get at is what I mean by an orthodox tradition. Or, more specifically, what I mean by tradition. This is a tricky concept, partly because the term tradition has become something of bete-noire in intellectual circles after the Enlightenment and partly because it has become a polemical term in our more modern culture wars. Yet, I think we need to unpack what a tradition actually is. Here astute readers may recognize the influence of Alasdair McIntyre, a Catholic philosopher out of Notre Dame.

A tradition, in my view, is a relatively coherent body of thought which is characterized both by a narrative featuring a coherent group of people and how they believe they fit in the world and by a running conversation or commentary over time about how this narrative should be interpreted and appropriated by the individuals in that community. It is not calcified belief, but rather must be dynamic as it encounters both internal and external challenges to its status as a truthful narrative. Indeed, the moment that it becomes calcified tradition, with little relation to what is going on in the world or with its followers, it loses it coherence and its ability to explain the world. What follows is that this tradition rapidly loses its appeal and, ultimately, its following.

A healthy tradition, then, is a tradition in which disagreement from within and without is not only expected, but recognized as beneficial. In the clashes and the conversations which comes from these encounters, a successful tradition enhances its narrative' ability to explain the world and, thus, its appeal as an explanation to others in and out of the tradition. This may mean reformulation amid challenges, but these reformulations are made, hopefully, in a way consistent to its original narrative and principles. The risk with reformulation, of course, is that the discord between the reformulation and the tradition's original narrative and principles becomes too much. This can happen and usually results in the emergence of a different tradition which, as it were, piggy-backs on former narrative, but re-interprets it in a fundamentally different way. The conflict caused by this re-interpretation begins as an internal problem, but can, under certain circumstances, become an external issue for a community and its tradition.

Now, the theory here is all well and good, but, before I close off this entry, I really have to do something about application. What I am arguing is that Christianity emerged out of a largely Jewish tradition because of the problem that Jesus and his followers presented to Jewish tradition, especially in regard to the presumed incarnation, resurrection and eschatological hope of a return of Jesus. As the new tradition formed, there was great diversity in interpretations of the basic narrative presented by Jesus and his followers. Among these interpretations was a narrative which, in its outline, posited Jesus as incarnate Son of God, the Messiah of Israel, who was killed by the Romans and Jewish religious authorities in Jerusalem c. 30s CE and was resurrected in three days. We have clear attestation of this tradition from the NT writings (which began to emerge in the late 1st century, but was in the process of becoming canonical over the next two or three centuries) to the writings of the Apostolic Fathers to the early Church Fathers like Tertullian, Cyprian, Origin, Cyril of Alexandria, who, pretty much, seemed to agree about these essential elements of what could be called the 'orthodox' tradition (or, at least, proto-orthodox, because it shows the signs of being the early predecessor of what we would later call orthodoxy). Yet, as a dynamic traditions, there continued to be disagreements within this tradition (the Quarto-Deciman controversy, disputes over the authoritative texts to be included in the canon or early Christological disputes), but this was healthy as part of a running conversation on the essential narrative presumed by an assortment of groups.

Clearly, this (proto-)orthodox position was not the only tradition bent on interpreting the narrative of Jesus and his followers. Clearly, there were Docetic, Gnostic, Jewish Christian interpretations of this story among others. Nor should we assume that, just because something we would identify as (proto-)orthodox existed that it was necessarily the strongest strand of Christianity or that it was destined to succeed (these are theological claims, not necessarily historical). Yet, a Bauerian contention that orthodox didn't emerge until the third century simply doesn't cut it either. There is enough evidence to accept that proto-orthodox groups not only existed, but even had contact with each other (see the apostolic travels of Paul and Peter or 1 Clement to the Corinthian church). Christianity was, as Bauer contends, diverse, including many different traditions and interpretations of Jesus' life and death. Why, it also included the (proto-)orthodox tradition, of all things.

I'd appreciate comments on this reasoning as it still is a bit experimental. Just as in a dynamic tradition, I need the input of both those who agree and those who dissent so that I can try to improve my interpretation.


Sunday, September 10, 2006

Friendship and the Friendship of God

I'm just back from a weekend retreat with the theological college my wife attends. I had attended a couple of these retreats before and while we were going out, so I jumped at the chance this year to go, partly because I really love this community and partly because it was a good chance to have a rest before the craziness of a new school year begins.

We had a couple good speakers this year; one of whom talked about Christian friendship. While I was listening, I began to think a bit about friendship in general which, I would suggest, has become rather impoverished over the last century or two, particularly male friendship. Close friendships were not at all unusual in societies in many cultures and in many times. In fact, it was believed that male friendship was one of the primary loyalties which people could have. Further, these friendships included a level of emotion which we, today, would either squirm in discomfort to hear or would assume that the two friends speaking were, in fact, gay. For instance, Cicero wrote hundreds of letters to Atticus in which he would express his longing to see his friend and his sense of loss in his friends' absence or giving his friend the news of the day in Rome or in Cicero's own family.

What confounds me (and worries me) is the degree to which this language and practice of friendship has become sexualized. That is, if we used the language of Cicero today with a friend, there is a very good chance it would be either mis-interpreted as a pass or would be regarded as evidence of a gay relationship. It seems that the only close male relationship that our culture can conceive is one that is sexualized. That is, perhaps, hyperbolic, but I wonder sometimes how much.

Yet, as the speaker at the retreat pointed out, it is these bonds of friendship which serve as one of the ways that communities function. It is in mutual friendship and all that entails which permits our faith communities to build the bonds that unite us. That cohesion is something wonderful to see and to experience, but it is not always present in our Christian communities. That is sad and worrying because it means that we really lost our way as a people, if we cannot even unite as individual communities.

This entry sounds pessimistic, I know. Yet, the scene is not all black. I know that my own life has been profoundly influenced both by close Christian friends (and some non-Christian ones, of course) and by healthy supportive communities (such as the college whose retreat I attended this weekend) where the bonds of friendship are strong. I have no doubt in the world that I would be a lot worse off in life without these influences. I think that is true of an awful lot of people, Christians and non-Christians. We haven't lost that God-given gift of friendship because it is simply too ingrained in our souls for us to lose it altogether. That is a grace for which we should praise God and which give me hope for the future.

At the end of the day, what binds all Christians together is that we have accepted the friendship of God and that we are all the means by which God reveals that friendship. A spiritual advisor once commented to me that, while I was fine with individual prayer, I really tended to struggle with allowing God to act through other people. I suspect one reason for that is that I'm introvert and I'd much rather huddle in a quiet corner to pray or meditate or read than to risk meeting or connecting with new people. My challenge, and, I think, the challenge of a lot of people, is to take the risks that friendship with God and with others entail. That risk usually produces real grace as I found on this weekend.


Friday, September 01, 2006

Book Review-Darrell Bock, The Missing Gospels

I happened upon this book at Mitchell's Family Books last week, a Christian bookstore chain up here in Ontario and, on a bit of an impulse decision, decided to buy it. Well, given the subject matter, that wasn't a surprise. Even a quick glance at my blog over the last few months would reveal an interest in the 2nd century Fathers and the Gnostic problem which they faced and which we're facing again. What I've been hoping for and not seeing up to now has been a serious attempt to engage the popular use of the Gnostic Gospels. That doesn't mean it hasn't been done, I just haven't seen many books which have done it as well as this one.

What Dr. Bock does is really engage with both the alternative Gospels and the so-called new school which has used these newly found texts to drive a re-interpretation of Christianity in its first two centuries. In this interpretation (begun by Walter Bauer in the 1930s and continued by Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman), it is argued that Christianity in the first and second century AD was much more diverse than traditional, orthodox history has suggested. Indeed, what we know as orthodoxy is, in fact, really a third century phenomenon and the Christianity of the first and second centuries AD was a much more tolerant, human-centred religion than otherwise assumed. This view has become very influential these days and has fueled the explosion of books on alternative gospels.

I'm not going to go into the details of Dr. Bock's argument, but what he does is to take this approach seriously. He give background to the controversy, but, more importantly, he carefully goes through the alternative Gospels, the Bible, the Apostolic Fathers, and Justin Martyr (stopping very purposely before getting to St. Irenaeus, the great villain of the new school) to see just what they say about the nature of God and the Creation, the divinity and humanity of Jesus, human redemption and Jesus' death. His conclusions aren't surprising: the new school is distorting what the alternative gospels are saying and, yes, the new school is right about there being diversity in the early Church, but orthodoxy can be traced back to the period as a dominant force on the Christian scene.

Will this book change the mind of a devoted reader of Pagels or Ehrman? Probably not. The scholars' disputes over the dates of composition of the books of the canonical Bible and the alternative writings are simply too controversial to expect easy agreement on the priority of the orthodox view. Yet, Dr. Bock is very balanced in his approach, conceding what is good in the new school, but also criticizing its for its excesses. That was a pleasant surprise because I was afraid this would be just another ill-informed, knee-jerk polemic which we occasionally see coming out on popular Christian issues.

This book is worth a read for any orthodox Christian (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, evangelical, whatever) because it really does give us a resource to deal with people who get excited with the next fresh Gospel to appear. As we found with the Gospel of Judas controversy at Easter, there are always some who want to take traditional Christianity down a peg or two, preferably during a major holiday season. This book will help educate you on the issues and prepare you for the next 'new gospel' coming to a bookstore near you.