Thursday, February 20, 2014

Do Christians Understand What It Means To Be Christian?

Perhaps there is no finer expression of the 'deep' issue at stake in the You Know What macro/meta debate going on in global and local Anglicanism, and other churches at this time than the following two comments made here yesterday:

"If you will allow a quotation from 'Anglican Taonga', Peter, in which your own writing features, I would like to post here a comment by the Kiwi writer, Imogen de la Bere, a Lay Anglican living in England, who also has an article in the same edition. Here she comments on the Church v Society, today:

"I sometimes think Christianity has been too successful for the good of the church. The universal acceptance of human rights is effectively a global and secular working out of the Christian agenda, and consequently, what we have to offer is less startling.

Secular society has so completely embraced the Christian ethic that we have less to set us apart. It is commonly accepted that each individual is valuable and his or her person-hood is sacrosanct.

Ironically the church now lags behind liberal society. It’s as if we laid down the path, showed it to the world, and they have sprinted ahead of us." 

I think this statement, succinct as it is, might fairly sum up a valid view of how the Church today is not coping with the advance of civil society, on matters of justice and freedom consonant with the Good News of the Gospel."

Thus Ron Smith (and Imogen de la Bere) give expression to a fine argument with a potentially overwhelming conclusion for the You Know What debate, that history (at least in the Western, post-Christendom world) has moved into a state of mature Christian fullness (while the church has lost its way and become, relative to that state, a little less than Christian). Let's say this argument is valid. Then Christians have no considerable amount of repenting to do: we have lost touch with the will of God, acted in ways to quench the Spirit of God, and tried to stop our own fervent prayer, "Your kingdom come" from being answered.

I don't think Ron or Imogen would mind if I wondered aloud (as someone not expert on the history of ideas) whether this is not a version of Hegelianism?

To which comment above, Bryden Black responds,

"Imogen de la Bere is indeed putting her finger upon a most important thing Ron. Yet both you and she also fail to notice an equally important aspect of this entire development of an idea and its effective practice.

As an initial aside firstly - which nonetheless is absolutely basic. The “Christian agenda” has as its premise the understanding of God and so of Reality, and notably human reality in the “image” of that God, to be Triune. As Walter Kasper sums it up: “The need was to reflect upon the data of Scripture and tradition and to break away from the one-sidedly essentialist thinking of Greek philosophy and into a personalist thinking ... laying the foundation of a new type of thought.”

It is this notion of personhood which has become part and parcel of our general understanding of the human. There is however another, absolutely crucial factor to consider, one which again has its roots in theology - or in this case, an a-theology. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll root it in the 17th C, and the sowing of the seeds of what became the Enlightenment in the following century. In a word: autonomy.

When the notion of human personhood is allied to the notion of human autonomy, then we have frankly a bastard child of the Christian faith and the Christian agenda. Failure to appreciate this (mostly, by western Christians who are quite simply immersed in this cultural pond water, ‘naturally and obviously’) is by and large the cause of much confusion in the Church today. And it behoves us to adhere to Rom 12:1-2 in as profound a manner as possible. Otherwise the Church will be captured by the father of lies, and know only slavery again."

What is Bryden putting his theological finger on? It is the question of what it means to be a human person, with special reference to what authority or governing idea(s) shape that understanding. (About which, see here). His underlying argument is that this is a prior question to the question of human rights. Human rights, after all, apply to humans and there is sound logic in asking first who or what 'humans' are to which 'rights' apply.

An implication of what Bryden is arguing is that there is no brave new post-Christendom world which turns out to be the fulfilment of the Christian vision. Hegel's Spirit controlling history is the spirit of humanity rather than the Spirit of God, and a fallen humanity at that, which has crucially taken a wrong turning in its self-understanding. A wrong turning, precisely, because we have sought 'self-understanding' of ourselves rather than God's understanding of ourselves.

One interesting (and, OK, provocative) aside here is to note that Ron and Bryden cannot both be correct. Paradoxically they are united on this point: the implication of each one's argument is that there are Christians around the world who do not understand what it means to be Christian.

POSTSCRIPT

You be the judge!

Here is history being made in the 21st century. It involves men and women, the powerful and the powerless. Does it epitomise the Hegelian divine spirit at work in the world as the divine will for humanity is worked out through history (more rapidly, note, than the church itself has been able to keep up with)? Or bog standard sinners, in this case instruments in the service of imperial oppression, familiar subjects in terms of the Bible's account of the state of the world?

35 comments:

Andrei said...

Ironically the church now lags behind liberal society. It’s as if we laid down the path, showed it to the world, and they have sprinted ahead of us

The hubris in that statement is astounding

We moderns know better than the Church - really?

Isn't the Church guided by the Holy Spirit anymore?

Or is it that the Holy Spirit has left the Church and now guides us through the media manipulation of popular opinion and the principles of political activism as articulated by Saul Alinsky?

2 Peter 2:1
But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.

Father Ron Smith said...

My latest post has just been struck from the record. I wonder why?

However, I'll try again:

Andrei, your remark about the Holy Spirit: "Isn't the Church guided by the Holy Spirit any more" seems a little tentative.

My answer to that is that the Holy Spirit is indeed guiding the Church - in ongoing ways - that are perhaps being disregarded by those in the Church who want to secure a status quo situation for important justice and ethical matters that need to be redressed.

Pope John XXIII's Vatican Council has been watered down by the Roman Catholic Church for the very same reason. Many people are scared of Pope John's 'Semper Reformanda' model, preferring to retain old things without any openness to any new revelation from God.

(2 days ago, we celebrated the new insights of Fr. Martin Luther!)

jj said...

Amen to that Andrei! The whole chapter of 2nd Peter is apposite. Was sucked in by the ethos of liberal theology for years, but "thanks be to God who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Cor 15:57) We have lost our way as a church and don't even know it.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Ron
Not sure why you lost the comment, but it was not through moderation. A gremlin in the machine?

tachesterton said...

I find Imogen de la Bere's comments to be astounding, and very reductionist in their understanding of Christian ethics and Christian mission. Hence:

'The universal acceptance of human rights is effectively a global and secular working out of the Christian agenda, and consequently, what we have to offer is less startling. Secular society has so completely embraced the Christian ethic that we have less to set us apart. It is commonly accepted that each individual is valuable and his or her person-hood is sacrosanct'.

Human rights actually do not appear in the Christian agenda. The concept of 'rights' is entirely absent from the New Testament and the early Church Fathers. If the entire purpose of Christian mission is to get people to believe that 'each individual is valuable and his or her person-hood is sacrosanct', then why did Jesus call people to repentance, faith, and baptism? Where is the idea of a personal relationship with our Creator in this? Where is prayer, discipleship, transformation into the image of Christ? Where is denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following Jesus? Where is 'not laying up for yourself treasures on earth'? Where is loving your enemies and praying for those who hate you? Where is the imitation of the Jesus who emptied himself and took the form of a servant, and who willingly washed his disciples' feet?

Honestly, I'm completely flummoxed by such a reductionistic view of Christian discipleship. One wonders why Jesus bothered to preach the Sermon on the Mount at all! (and why he forgot to include the concept of human rights in it!!!)

Tim C.

Bryden Black said...

Stunning link to Michael Hanby Peter; many thanks indeed! But then such a piece is not surprising coming from the pen of Augustine and Modernity (2003). The two page "Postscript: Modernity in Augustinian Hindsight" equally stunningly sums up a key feature of our present cultural plight, both generally and particularly within the western Church.

mike greenslade said...

Kia ora Peter,

Does the Church know what it means to be Church?

Imogen's insight is that some outside the institution are at times enacting church more than those inside. Fair point.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Mike
Yes, it is a fair point to the extent that it is a claim that the church can get things wrong(the point of Protestantism!!), that wisdom is not exclusive to the church, and that God's mercy is wider than what the church can (often falteringly) demonstrate.

No, it is not a fair point to the extent that it offers a general, uncritical affirmation of modern secular liberal society. That same society pushes forward agenda concerning abortion and euthanasia in which (to put it mildly) it is far from clear that society is sprinting ahead of the church. Further, this affirmation carries (in my view) some pretty heavy implications for the point of Christianity. Is the work of this faith over? Are the affects and effects of the cross now part of history? Did Christ die for those unable to keep up with the church, but not for those now sprinting ahead of the church?!

I am quite anxious to get to the bottom of such questions ... after all, it could turn out that I am drawing a stipend under false pretences!!

Andrei said...

I'm not quite sure why "pussy riot" being moved on from where they are not supposed to be by security guards is "history being made", Peter.

I suppose the fact that "Pussy Riot" are infamous blasphemers and that the security guards are Cossacks provides some colour, along with the fact that some western leaders are smarting after having been outwitted by Vladimir Putin in recent days but these are scenes quite mild compared to others - eg the moving along of Occupy protesters in NYC a few years ago, all part of the rich tapestry of life in a fallen world.

A far greater tragedy is unfolding in Kiev, and there is a real risk that Ukraine will descend into civil war as ancient animosities are aroused to punish the Government there for not submitting to the IMF but taking a lifeline offered by Vladimir Putin to stave off an upcoming financial crisis.

But what does the bible say wars and rumours of wars

Bryden Black said...

Once again Mike you too merely precipitate a necessary hermeneutical exercise by using "Imogen's insight" the way you do. For which "outsiders" and at what "times" are you specifically referring to?! Bland generalizations that have a go at the Church only serve to obscure, and prompt, as does Peter's reply and now mine, far more careful elaboration.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Andrei
History is being made everyday by everyone (at least that is how I understand the sense of 'the spirit' at work in human history). On the Hegelian approach to history, the police beat up on Pussy Riot represents some kind of advance on the 'spirit's' role in history.

Or does it? That is my question. I happen to have seen the video this morning. I might have seen (say) protests in Kiev; an item about Blair advising Murdoch and Brooks on a Machielvellian ... all grist to the biblical mill about what is 'really' going on in history.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Andrei
History is being made everyday by everyone (at least that is how I understand the sense of 'the spirit' at work in human history). On the Hegelian approach to history, the police beat up on Pussy Riot represents some kind of advance on the 'spirit's' role in history.

Or does it? That is my question. I happen to have seen the video this morning. I might have seen (say) protests in Kiev; an item about Blair advising Murdoch and Brooks on a Machielvellian ... all grist to the biblical mill about what is 'really' going on in history.

mike greenslade said...

I can understand your anxiety Peter!

Of course it is easy to point to examples where any society or individual is broken, or could be doing better. What is harder is to recognise it in ourselves - even (especially?) as a church. When there are people living gospel truths and they are not identified as a part of the church, then it is important for us to reflect on who and what we are. I appreciate Imogen doing that.

"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven."

Janice said...

Hello Peter,

You might enjoy reading this article by Michael Hannon at First Things. Against Heterosexuality.

Some quotes:
In essence, we should happily join our voices to those of the poststructuralist queer theorists in their vigorous critiques of the naive orientation essentialists, who mistakenly think “straight” and “gay” are natural, neutral, and timeless classifications.

Their disillusioned historicism makes these sexual genealogists uniquely positioned to see through the deceptions of sexual orientation, .... Ironically, these radical leftists may be the only ones who can heal the blindness we have foolishly inflicted upon ourselves of late by uncritically adopting the language of hetero- and homosexuality. ...

The role of the champion of Christian chastity today, I argue, is to dissociate the Church from the false absolutism of identity based upon erotic tendency, and to rediscover our own anthropological foundation for traditional moral maxims.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Janice
To be honest I don't 'enjoy' something as heavy going as that article. But I get the point he is making (at least I think I do!). A challenge at this time is to speak to a world which operates at a lower level of discourse than that high level. My own language would seek to talk about what it means to be truly human: alive to God and what God offers, alert to God's Word and what God asks of us, with special reference to Romans 12:1-2.

Andrei said...

On the Hegelian approach to history, the police beat up on Pussy Riot represents some kind of advance on the 'spirit's' role in history.

Apart from the fact that the men in that video are not "police" rather they have a semi official role in a similar manner that Maori wardens might here, this is just random noise from the world that has no bearing on our spiritual development - those girls want attention, they traveled 1500km to create a situation such as the one you displayed, thus playing their game.

Far more interesting is the conflicts between the world we live in and our Christian conscience - how do you feel about your tax dollars funding abortion?

We live in a benign time of peace, which is why we fill up our lives with rubbish like "pussy riot" and Sunday evening cooking reality shows but have you ever wondered how you might have behaved if you had been born in Germany around the early 1920s and found yourself a Soldier in Kuban in 1941/42?

Would you have been a monster, martyr or just gone along to get along?

We are all put to the test, perhaps not dramatically, just in little things for most of us and I suspect we often fail because its easier to ignore the contradictions that might make life a little less comfortable for us and who likes conflict?

Father Ron Smith said...

Peter, when you speak of Romans 12: verses 1 & 2, you really need to go on to read the whole chapter - to which these two verses are only a prelude. Remember, also, as I reminded, Bryden, in another post; that context is all when discussing isolated biblical verses.

Reading this Epistle, for instance, down to the last 8 verses, you will find such words as these:

"Bless those who persecute you; never curse them" - down to "Treat everyone with equal kindness; never be condescending but make real friends with the poor."

These are Gospel characteristics, which sometimes are practised by outsiders to a greater degree than those of us in the Church. We are sometimes so concerned for our own 'holiness' that we overlook the Christ-like generosity of those who are not part of the body of Christ. (I am no different, here!)

v.20: "But there is more: If your enemy is hungry, you should give him food, and if he is thirsty, let him drink................"
v.21: "Resist evil and conquer it with good."

Not much to do with sexuality, but pretty good principles to live by!

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Andrei
My post is not an attack on Russia so no need to defend her. I am highlighting 'man's inhumanity to man'. I don't think it matters whether a man beating up a woman is a real policeman or not; a reprehensible action is taking place.

You are quite right: we all need to work out what doing the right thing involves. Of German ancestry myself I am not going to attempt to work out whether I would have ended up a Bonhoeffer or a bully in the German army.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Ron
I don't think Romans 12:1-2 are "isolated verses" - they are a fulcrum in the whole argument of Romans, and verses which relate to the great sweep of God's plan of salvation.

Indeed there are merciful people who are not Christians. But is it not your experience, as it is mine, that, on average the truly merciful (e.g. merciful to all, not just to the preferred ones) are more likely to be Christians than not?

Father Ron Smith said...

"Indeed there are merciful people who are not Christians. But is it not your experience, as it is mine, that, on average the truly merciful (e.g. merciful to all, not just to the preferred ones) are more likely to be Christians than not?" - P.C. -

Well, Peter, do you think that the collusion of the Primates of Uganda and Nigeria with the civil authorities in their respective countries on the prosecution of Gay people and their families could be called merciful?

Just compare that 'mercy' with the acceptance of the intrinsic gayness of people by non-Christian people in thre western world.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Ron,
Are you being perverse? Theology, sociology, anthropology is not reducible to where people stand on one and only one issue? I am pressed to lift my usual diplomatic reserve and ask how someone who clearly is better than Theology 101 level of understanding (see previous comments by your own good self) can descend to this level of response!

I stand by my remark/question above as a genuine question about the world in general. It is based on the history and current practice of Christianity (e.g. founding of schools and hospitals, willingness to go into all corners of the world to seek out the poor and most hard-pressed in order to bring the message of salvation in word and deed).

That someone can cite a few Christians here and there as (arguably) acting unmercifully, is not a particularly deep or wide response to the question I raise. (I say 'arguably' because I suggest you are talking about an approach to behaviour. I know of no evidence one way or another of the people you allege are unmerciful in respect of their approach to the orientation of gays.)

I invite you to make a general response to my general point ...

mike greenslade said...

Kia ora Peter,

Regarding what you are saying to Ron: Do we have any definitive evidence of difference in behaviour between those are Christian (self titled/baptised/church attenders etc) and those who don't carry that label? Surely there is significant casual observation of both merciful and abusive behaviour of all people, and of all institutions?

Peter Carrell said...

Yes, MIke, I am talking at the casual/anecdotal level.

But again, should I take my dog collar off and cut it up, if the gospel makes no difference in the world? (!!)

mike greenslade said...

Thanks Peter.
I am not suggesting that the gospel makes no difference in the world. To the contrary, I am suggesting it does make a huge difference, but that this does not directly correlate to those of us who publicly identify as 'Christian', or who call ourselves 'church'.

Your title question is an excellent one!

Father Ron Smith said...

When we speak of Christians here, Peter, we surely mean ALL Christians (to re-emphasise your own point). This, then, does not exclude parts of the Church in today's world - with whom some seem to align themselves at this moment - that are noted for being unmerciful to a minority section of their people!

No. I am not being perverse for the sake of perversity. I may be pricking a few consciences here and there - which might, surely, be one of the tasks of the Gospel.

Differently from you, I see my role in the ministry of our Church as one of seeking justice, as well as mercy (a very O.T. emphasis, after all), in the hope that my emphasis on these qualities might help some people on the margins of society to recognise Jesus as the true Liberator, Saviour and Redeemer, that Christians ought to promote.

In my book, liberality in the gospel does not mean 'laissez-faire' attitudes to Law and Order. Rather it means being freed from burdens imposed by institutional injustice and inhumanity.

I am trying to 'Love God, with all my heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love my neighbour as myself' - and to encourage others to do the same. This, I believe, is the work of the gospel. I will not abandon this!

This is why I still keep my collar on; conduct public worship, blog and preach the love and mercy of the God who 'So loved the WORLD..' not only the Church.

MichaelA said...

"This, then, does not exclude parts of the Church in today's world - with whom some seem to align themselves at this moment - that are noted for being unmerciful to a minority section of their people!"

That is true, however I am hopeful that we will yet see a change in the attitude of the Episcopal Church in USA... ;)

"In my book, liberality in the gospel does not mean 'laissez-faire' attitudes to Law and Order. Rather it means being freed from burdens imposed by institutional injustice and inhumanity."

A fair point.

MichaelA said...

"I am not suggesting that the gospel makes no difference in the world. To the contrary, I am suggesting it does make a huge difference, but that this does not directly correlate to those of us who publicly identify as 'Christian', or who call ourselves 'church'."

It may not, but if so, that is because we as Christians are not living up to the Gospel. As our Lord taught us:

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven." [Matt 5:14-16]

Mind you, to many people it will *seem* that the world is more moral than Christians. But those who are called by God will discern the truth:

"For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. ... Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength." [1 Corinthians 1:18, 22-25]

Father Ron Smith said...

MichaelA. Have you ever thought that part of 'bearing one's cross', that Jesus counselled, for Gays might just be bearing the insults they receive from people who vilify them in the world - including those 'followers' of Jesus who believe they have no 'place' in the world?

God's wisdom is indeed wiser than that of men - who might believe they have won salvation through their own holiness - instead of that of Jesus Christ.

MichaelA said...

Fr Ron, why would I see bearing one's cross as referring to bearing insults, for anyone? Those who took up their cross knew that they were legally condemned to death for their sin, and that the sentence was shortly to be carried out. Any insults from the crowd were a very peripheral matter.

Also, what followers of Jesus believe Gays "have no place in the world"? I am sure there are some, somewhere, but no-one that I can think of on this blog, or associated with them.

I do know many Christians who believe that God has taught that those in an unrepentant homosexual relationship should not be clergy. But that is not the position you described, is it?

Father Ron Smith said...

"Fr Ron, why would I see bearing one's cross as referring to bearing insults, for anyone?" - MicahelA -

Did you miss out on the Suffering Servant passages of Isaiah in your seminary training? If so, you may have missed the whole point of what is called 'bearing one another's burdens' - the heart of the Gospel.

Christ called us to bear 'our Crosses' - not His. he has already done that. Deo gratias!

MichaelA said...

1. "in your seminary training"

Do you remember when you asked me (not for the first time) whether I was a member of the clergy? The answer was No in January and its still No in February!

2. "Did you miss out on the Suffering Servant passages of Isaiah ..."

I am familiar with it and I do not follow the connection you are trying to draw.

You started this by asking me whether I thought that Gays bearing insults is (part of) what Christ meant by taking up our cross daily and following him. I do not see why that should be the case - bearing insults for the sake of the gospel might be so, but you didn't suggest that the insults you were talking about had anything to do with the gospel.

Many people get insulted for various reasons every day, often unfairly - that doesn't mean it was what Christ was referring to in Matthew 16:34.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Ron
The focus of the question at issue here is whether insulted (even persecuted) people, for whatever reason, are bearing the cross of Christ as they bear the insults.

I am not publishing your latest comment because its focus wavers from the question at issue towards other matters, and strays so close to comment about the commenter that I think discretion forbears me not to publish it. To be clear, I am not saying it is an 'ad hominem' comment per se; but I am wary of publishing that which strays from issues at hand.

I am happy to publish a comment from you which is focused on the question of what it means for a Christian to bear the cross of Christ.

Father Ron Smith said...

Peter, let's get this right once and for all! Nowhere did I say that Christians are expected to 'bear the Cross of Christ. Jesus has already done that - to the benefit of sinners everywhere, even those of us in the Church.

Indeed, it would be false to the text to say that Jesus said that. What Jesus did say, was that those who would be his followers should bear THEIR Cross and follow him.

THEIR Cross, for certain followers of Jesus in the Church today, might just be their intrinsic homosexual nature, for which some members of the Church vilify them.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Ron
I apologise for using the phrase 'cross of Christ' as though that was your phrase - it is not.

Simply as a theological point of debate, I am comfortable with the thought that taking up the cross is to take up the cross of Christ, the cross we bear because we suffer for Christ's sake.

I m also comfortable with debating whether aspects of our nature and individuality are a 'cross I have to bear' or just stuff I bear because I am who I am.

However I am not setting out here and now to debate either.

Father Ron Smith said...

"I m also comfortable with debating whether aspects of our nature and individuality are a 'cross I have to bear' or just stuff I bear because I am who I am." - Dr. Peter Carrell -

You mean, Peter, like Jesus?

He also bore His Cross BECAUSE of Who He was!