Thursday, August 31, 2006

Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean blog; Come, plunge the knife

Phil Harland on The Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean blog has posted an interesting entry on cultural bias against Jews and Christians in the Roman. It's an excellent post and well worth reading.

Meanwhile, I'm working by way through Bock's Missing Gospels and getting ready for the new school year. I am hoping to post a review of the Bock book in the next couple of days, so keep an eye out for that.


Thursday, August 24, 2006

Augustine and Me

This week, I've been thinking about conversion. To some degree, it is the time of year because it was in the fall of 1991 that I began the process of becoming a Christian. As I noted below in Why Patristics?, my wife likes to tell people that I'm the only person she knows who converted because of reading Augustine. That isn't quite the whole story, of course. No conversion story is quite this simple. My own conversion was the product of a vague searching for faith from my late teens on, a real intellectual interest in Christiain thinking, the good example of several Christians in my life and, above all, God's own grace in making me receptive to what was going on around me. Yet, didn't Augustine himself report the story of the two imperial officials who turned to a life of asceticism after reading a Life of Antony (Augustine, Confessions, 8,6) Why shouldn't the example of a long dead bishop, theologian and saint play a part in the conversion a young Master student more than fifteen hundred years later?

Why not, indeed? Still, I wonder sometimes what it was which attracted me so much to Augustine. Goodness knows that he has had more than his own share of critics over the ages. Besides, it wasn't as if I was reading him in a seminary or something where people would take his faith seriously. No, I was reading him in a course which I jokingly called "Beginners Intensive Augustine (its real title was Topics in Medieval History or something with a similar degree of academic blandness) in a secular university. Not exactly a setting conducive to experiencing the faith of such a man.

Yet, I think what caught my attention was Augustine's honesty in describing how God led him to faith. Like me, he spent a good amount of time investigating ideas and notions about spirituality. In fact, he spent rather more time and trouble to do so than I had. Yet, what I felt I had in common with him was that I was spending a lot of my time trying to figure out how to come closer to God, but I really just needed to stop and let God catch me. It was that sense of God's grace in Augustine' life, even when he was not being faithful, which made sense of my own growing sense of conversion. Augustine was one of my guides in the faith during those exciting, but disorienting months of my Christian life.

In Hebrews, we are assured that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses (Hebrews, 12,1). For me, Augustine was one of these witnesses, who set an example of faith and endurance during a difficult time. I don't pretend to be an Augustine expert. I really have only read the Confessions, The City of God, The Enchiridion, and On Christian Teaching. My theological understanding presumes a degree of Augustinianism, but, if I have to confess, that is also at second-hand. All that, however, isn't as important as the sense that Augustine was one of my guides in faith at a very impressionable time.

At the end of the course, the prof. asked us whether we thought that Augustine had any relevance today. My answer was that I did because I knew, from my own experience in the last months, he has made a major difference to my life. Of course, I got the predictable sceptical looks from the prof and my colleagues, but I think I touched one something which was true. Augustine (and the rest of the Fathers) remain important because they are among that cloud of witnesses which surround all of us. Their example and their thinking should remind us of God's grace in the lives of these all too fallable human beings. Setting aside their intellectual value (which is considerable), it is their spiritual value as witnesses which should catch the attention of all Christians.


Sunday, August 20, 2006

Why Bother with Theology?

This week, I've been involved in a discussion which began about a trivia question about a 1960s controversy about Bishop Pike of ECUSA and has headed into a discussion about heresy and whether belief really matters in the Christian life. Of course, this is hardly a new conversation. I've been posting on various Anglican boards for something like nine or ten years now and I think I fight this debate, at least, once or twice a year.

As usual, this debate got me thinking about the state of theological understanding in my church today. I admit that, in the first couple of years of my conversion, I was among those who maintained an amused skepticism around the idea of theology. As Humphreys said on Yes, Prime Minister(a British comedy which featured a bumbling politician being manipulated by his civil service advisors) when he identifies a candidate for the Archbishop of York as a theologian: "Theology is a way for unbelievers for staying in the Church".

To some extent, this cynicism is warranted. Academic theology has had a tendency to be very removed from Christian practice for many years. I know that friends who regularly go to the American Academy of Religion report a rarified atmosphere and, occasionally, bizarre disjunction with reality at this scholarly event. For the person in the pew, struggling to practice his/her Christianity, these discussions seem pointless.

Add to that the way that traditional doctrine has been taught in the past. Quite frequently, doctrine was something to be memorized, not understood. That is odd, given the admittedly bizarre things that we Christians are asked to believe: incarnation, resurrection, Virgin Birth and more. Is there any wonder why both doctrine and theology are held in so little esteem in the church?

Yet, I've changed my mind over the last eight or nine years. What ultimately changed my mind was the recognition that there is a reason why these doctrines have emerged the way they did and there are reasons why theology matters. At the end of the day, theology is an attempt to explain what we believe and to make what we do as Christians make sense. That means that, no matter how abstract a theological proposition is, it has be somehow related back to practice or to our understanding of what the Christian life is. Any theological proposition that can't do this is a proposition that can and should be forgotten about.

Theology's reason for existing is explanation and, in that sense, it is running commentary on Scripture and on the communal experience of the Church in Christ. Its value is to draw us closer into the story which defines us and in allowing us to understand how we should relate to a world which does not fully accept this story. Theology can explain faith to those who don't understand it. It can connect us to our faith story and reinforce us, even when times are bad. It can point to what is the right action by helping us to see what our faith demands in a given situation. At the end of the day, theology is God-talk, of all kinds. It isn't just rarified speculations on the origin of the world or on the number of angels on a pin. It is more important than all that. It is the grammar for our God-talk and, if we are to make any sense, we need to know what that grammar is.

Once I started to understand theology as a grammar, I began to get why it was important. I also began to want to see how good theologians use that grammar. What I found surprised me a bit. I found myself turning to those who understood the doctrines that I found hard to swallow and who explained how those doctrines fit into the grammar. I began to understand why taking out this or that doctrine causes ripples in how we think about faith, about God and about how we practice our Christian life. That caused me to want to read more theology and to think more theologically. I am a self-confessed theological auto-didact with all the defects...and all the benefits of that approach. Yet, I don't think I'd be writing quite this kind of blog without it, but, more importantly, I know my prayer and my practice have been informed by my readings in theology.

Theology will not, of course, save you or me. Nor, I would point out, will our Christian practices. Our salvation depends on the grace of God alone, not on our intellectual or physical efforts. Yet, both theology and practice matter. What I'm arguing here is that the solution to the debate I quote above isn't theological doctrine or practice. It is theology AND practice. If we are called, as we Anglicans love to say, to worshipping the Lord God with all our minds, all our hearts and all our souls, we need to pay attention to what theology says, what doctrine says, if we are to reflect on our mission today.


Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Isaiah 2,22 and Protagoras

Stop trusting in man, who has but a breath in his nostrils. Of what account is he? Isaiah 2,22

I ran across this line earlier this week while I was doing some devotional reading. For some reason, that morning I was really struck by it, not so much because of its sentiment which we find elsewhere in Scripture quite frequently, but I suspect because of what was the next thing which popped in my head: the well-known fragment of Protagoras:

Man is the measure of all things

Okay, that is an odd association, I grant you. Yet, it makes some sense to juxtrapose these two lines. After all, encapsulated in these two quotations, we find outselves right up against the difference between the anthropology of the Bible and that of not only classical antiquity, but modern humanism. Both quotations make bold statements about the place of humans in the universe. Both change our outlook on life and the world in profound ways.

In the Protagoras fragment, humanity becomes the standard by which the rest of the universe is evaluated and judged. We are the single most important beings in the world because we alone boast the ability for abstract thought and for judgements. We have the wisdom and the ability to make the world in our image. There is no need for the divine or for God or for gods because they are either hopeless distant and uninterested in human affairs, or they are simply non-existent. We are self-sufficient or, at least, we can be. We are enlightened. We alone can determine what is good and apply it to the world.

All this should sound familiar. Really, Protagoras' thinking is not so different from our own. We often, in practice, push God out of our consideration, thinking that we know better or that God is irrelevant when we deal with the problems we have. After all, if He was so great, why do we have to fix up his mess of a Creation? So, we'll find our own solutions, thank you very much.

Yet, when we read passages like Isaiah 2,22, we come crashing back to reality. At the end of a passage in which God paints a picture of a deluded humanity coming face to face with the folly of their exalted view of themselves and their refusal to trust in Him, the Creator of the world. Everything that makes us proud (possessions, power) will become worthless to us. All the idols we raise up for ourselves to try to hide God will be utterly useless. All the things that we think will save us will fail. We will realize that God really is in charge and at the centre of it all. So, we will realize that we are only mortal and God is the only constant, not us.

That is a humbling realization and I think it is that dose of perspective is what caught my attention the other day. I know I cannot think that I'm more important than anything else in this world for the very good reason that I'm not. The only perspective which works is that we can't count on people or things or Nature or Fate or whatever we find to substitute for God, but we always have to come back to the triune God. Everything else passes away. God remains.


Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Nicaea and the Anglican Communion

Things weren't looking good for Nicene Christians in the 360s and 370s. Everything had come together so well only forty years before. The Emperor Constantine had legalized Christianity, encouraged its growth and had even convened the Council of Nicaea to settle the outstanding disputes in the Church, especially Arianism. Out of that council came the Nicene Creed which was supposed to settle the vexed question of Jesus' nature once and for all.

It didn't turn out that way. First, Constantine began to backpedal to keep Eastern bishops, who thought the Creed unscriptural and theologically unsound, happy. Then, his son, Constantius II began to try to impose a new creed on the Church and began to exile Nicene leaders. Worse still, the Nicene movement was splintering; the West, dominated by Nicene Christians, quarrelling with Eastern Nicene leaders over who the proper Nicene leader in Antioch was, Meletius or Paulinus. Amid all this, relentless imperial pressure from the Eastern Emperor, Valens, especially, was grinding the Nicene supporters.

From this unpromising situation, three friends ( St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Gregory of Nyssa) from the remote province of Cappadocia emerged to give the Nicene movement a new boost. These Neo-Nicenes supported the Nicene view that Jesus Christ was consubstantial with God the Father, but equally firmly supported the view that the three persons of the Trinity were also separate persons which was at the centre of their moderate opponents' concerns about the Nicene Creed. Ultimately, they managed to win enough support that, at the Council of Constantinople, their Neo-Nicene view carried the day and the Nicene Creed was reiterated as the official creed of the Church.

So, I'm sure you're asking that this history lesson is all very interesting, but what is my point? What I find interesting about these events is how the Nicene orthodoxy emerged. A lot of people merely assume that the Nicene Creed was accepted without difficulty or challenge right at the Council of Nicaea. Not so. It took almost sixty years of ecclesiastical conflict to establish that creed as authoritative. Indeed, for much of this time, it looked like the supporters of Nicene orthodoxy might well lose. Indeed, it wasn't until moderates (the Cappadocian fathers) emerged who would firmly defend the authority of the Nicene creed, but would interpret it in a way that was widely acceptable to even their moderate opponents, that the Nicene orthodoxy became well-established. The brilliance of the Cappadocian solution was that it navigated between the extremes of Arianism and modalism to emerge at the head of a new coalition which would affirm what would become the orthodox Christology. Orthodoxy, as the Cappodocian Fathers well knew, is rarely found in the extremes, but rather navigates between the extremes of theological thought.

It is this recognition which set me to thinking about the current controversies in the Anglican Communion. In the past few years, the theological realm of the Anglican Communion has become very polarized. You can tell that both in the interactions of Church leaders and in Anglican blogosphere where extreme liberals and extreme conservatives only agree on one thing: they are sick and tired of each other and they see no other option but to separate. Conservatives are splintering on the issue of when or if to leave. Ecclesially, it seems like the 360s and 370s all over again.

Still, just as in the 360s and 370s, there are signs of hope. For one, there is the Windsor Report which, for all of its flaws, has attempted to give an even-handed attempt to map out the conditions needed to work out the current chaos. There is the Covenant ideas of the Archbishop of Canterbury who, even if the devil in the details, is trying to find a way to ease the tensions. Furthermore, there are the voices of Windsor conservatives, Bishop Tom Wright, the Anglican Communion Institute, who, while retaining a vigorous defence of the traditional views on homosexuality, are refusing to leave without making their case and listening to liberals do the same. All of these give me hope that we can find our way through this crisis with a renewed sense of our mission and our faith.

Of course, there are profound differences between the struggles today over homosexuality today and Christology then. For one thing, the latter struggle was more fundamental. For another, a change of emperors opened the opportunity to consolidate the Nicene position at the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD. Yet, that earlier crisis has taught us that extremes don't work in theology and that a real solution must navigate between not one heresy, but two. May God be with us as we navigate between the Scylla of permissiveness and the Charybdis of judgementalism.