Flowers from the Cross

Our church here in New York began the Easter service a few days ago with a ritual that I borrowed from our previous church in Vancouver. The congregation was invited to approach a rough cross assembled by binding thorny sticks together, they each took a few flowers and filled the dead cross with color. Below is the piece that I wrote to introduce the idea and begin the service (channelling my inner Brueggemann).Image

This rough, dead, thorny, barren cross is the symbol of Jesus’ execution at the hands of the Romans.

But Jesus’ life shows us that this cross is also the symbol of:

the poor choking on injustice,

those who society views as suspicious, dangerous, dirty, immoral, or stupid,

the migrant far from home, overworked yet under-welcomed,

the bullied, tied up in knots of fear, anger, and self-loathing

those on the underside of every history of privilege,

those suffering and dying of diseases easily cured because of the indifference of neighbors,

those imprisoned, especially those imprisoned wrongly, or imprisoned for trivialities,

those on whose backs fortunes are made, but who never see the benefit,

the sexually abused, exploited, confused, repressed,

the nameless numbers enduring every systemic bureaucratic, faceless evil,

the dispossessed animals, suffocating oceans, sterile streams, oily rivers, smoke-clogged skies, and collapsing ecosystems trampled by a “non-negotiable” way of life,

the souls crushed under repetitive, mindless demands for hollow productivity,

the invaded, colonized, occupied, and displaced,

the conscripted, indebted, swindled, and ignored.

We all know the cross in these ways. We carry these crosses and we force them on others.

But today more than any other day we remember:

that God raised life up after people had used this dead, thorny, barren tool to do their worst,

that all the death the systems of this world could muster couldn’t contain the life of God’s Spirit,

that hell itself, its damnation and judgment, couldn’t contain the life of God’s spirit.

So we wait (with our fear), we hope (with our anger), we keep the faith (with our guilt), looking:

for God’s revolution,

God’s apocalypse,

to overturn and overwhelm,

to undo, flood, and wipe away these systems in the name of life.

As a gesture or ritual of this hope,

an image of change,

a pledge of reform,

a seed of faith,

a whisper of the resurrection,

I invite you to take a few of these flowers and fill this death-ridden cross, and all the injustice it represents, with fragile life. Take a few flowers, find a way to jam them into the crevices of the cross, and then we will worship.

The Hippopotamus

It just might be the case that T.S. Eliot beat me to my dissertation by about 90 years. Here is a poem published in 1920:

The Hippopotamus — T.S. Eliot

THE broad-backed hippopotamus
Rests on his belly in the mud;
Although he seems so firm to us
He is merely flesh and blood.

Flesh-and-blood is weak and frail,
Susceptible to nervous shock;
While the True Church can never fail
For it is based upon a rock.

The hippo’s feeble steps may err
In compassing material ends,
While the True Church need never stir
To gather in its dividends.

The ‘potamus can never reach
The mango on the mango-tree;
But fruits of pomegranate and peach
Refresh the Church from over sea.

At mating time the hippo’s voice
Betrays inflexions hoarse and odd,
But every week we hear rejoice
The Church, at being one with God.

The hippopotamus’s day
Is passed in sleep; at night he hunts;
God works in a mysterious way–
The Church can sleep and feed at once.

I saw the ‘potamus take wing
Ascending from the damp savannas,
And quiring angels round him sing
The praise of God, in loud hosannas.

Blood of the Lamb shall wash him clean
And him shall heavenly arms enfold,
Among the saints he shall be seen
Performing on a harp of gold.

He shall be washed as white as snow,
By all the martyr’d virgins kist,
While the True Church remains below
Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.

 

Eliot works out a fantastic reversal over the course of the poem. As Mary Midgley (whose book Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature led me to Eliot’s poem) points out, we have a tendency to think about animals in their actual behavior  and humans in their ideal behavior. Hippopotami are bloated, awkward, and fartsome, while human beings intone immaculate hallelujahs.

By the end of the poem, however, the rarified hubris of the pure Church has turned to an isolating fog. Building a community, or a spirituality on the principle of excluding the animal (whether one’s own human animality or the animal others whom we meet face to face) may also thwart God’s love, which bends to bodies as bloated and fartsome as our own.

Saint Paul and King Lear :: (Finally) a Sermon to Celebrate

In general, and despite the many pastors in my life for whom I have enduring respect, my expectations for any given Sunday’s sermon are low. Ok, very low. My approach is to set the bar so far down that I’m never disappointed. So long as the sermon doesn’t consist entirely of anecdotes from golf, the congregation is not exhorted to recognize the many virtues of our political-economic order, and the scripture readings are not totally negated by explanation, I usually come to the sermon’s end in a placid spirit. I can’t say that I recommend this approach, nor is it very Lutheran of me (the Word, after all, is present in faithful preaching faithfully received), but my Sunday morning realism keeps in check both my ecclesial idealism and the cynicism that is its shadow.

But, to my great surprise and delight, I heard this morning a sermon which brought together the lives of Saint Paul and King Lear in an intelligent and provocative way that also communicated some of the challenges of the Christian gospel. Both Lear and Paul are brought to recognize the meaning in their lives in and through the very transformation in which their lives are dismantled. For Lear, it is Cordelia’s hospitality in the face of his broken destitution that finally exposes the madness of his former pomp and pretense. Likewise, Paul is so stricken on the road to Damascus that he begins preaching in the name of the man whose followers he’d just been persecuting. He finds his identity, by grace, in the midst of the community gathered by God, a community that Paul’s own tireless travels will spread. Life doesn’t end in a tidy manner for either Lear or Paul, but even in their respectively tragic ends, their lives have been redeemed through a transformation that cost them both dearly.

I was left, not only challenged by the message, but grateful for a carefully crafted sermon that rose above the standard fare (without being ostentatiously sophisticated) by encouraging us to read widely and think deeply—precisely as Christians. That happens so seldom in Church that, unfortunately, it catches me by surprise.

That’s the craziest f#$%@# thing I’ve ever heard!

Among the many unsung benefits of entering the discipline of theology is the opportunity to ponder brilliant thoughts from some of the most erudite minds and sensitive spirits of history. Another unsung benefit is getting to read the bizarre nonsense that some of the same erudite minds slough off  along the way.

Along the lines of Stephen Colbert’s occasional segments by the same title, I thought I’d offer two quotes (with commentary) that made me say, “That’s the craziest f#$%@# thing I’ve ever heard!”

Paul Tillich:

“The concreteness of man’s ultimate concern drives him toward polytheistic structures; the reaction of the absolute element against these drives him toward monotheistic structures; and the need for a balance between the concrete and the absolute drives him toward trinitarian structures.” [1]

A Tillich-inspired Recipe:

  1. Take your ultimate concern.
  2. Average the concreteness of your ultimate concern with the absolute element also found therein.
  3. Remove the polytheistic and monotheistic by-products.
  4. Voila! A Trinitarian drive!
  5. Drop the trinitarian drive in your Volvo, and not only will your gas milage dramatically improve, but the circumincessio occuring in your engine is now totally self-lubricating!

Friedrich Schleiermacher:

“Thus, in fact, people become all the more indifferent to the church the more they increase in religion, and the most pious sever themselves from it proudly and coldly. Nothing can in fact be clearer than that seekers of religion are in this association [i.e. the church] only because they have no religion; they persevere in it only so long as they have none.” [2]

Indeed, one excellent measure for just how much true religion a person might have would be the degree of coldness and pride with which that person passes by any religious establishment. People with a wholehearted dedication to the church are clearly (nay, most clearly) the most muddleheaded irreligious shams you could ever encounter!

____

[1] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 221.

[2] Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, trans. Richard Crouter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 172.

the demise of a doctrine? :: Weinandy and Tilley

The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.

–G.K. Chesterton

While this quip from Chesterton may not quite capture the contours of the conversation, may it at least bring a touch of humor to an unfortunately acrid encounter between Terry Tilley and Thomas Weinandy.

For those who are unfamiliar with the situation (and care to acquaint themselves further): Tilley (who, in the interest of full disclosure, chairs the department where I am a student) delivered the presidential address at the CTSA this summer on three Christological impasses. Weinandy responded, pointing to what he regarded as superficial, fallacious, and theologically dangerous elements in that address. This article subsequently sensationalized the conflict. Tilley gave a short reply, to which Weinandy added a full stop. I, on the other hand, learned about the whole mess from a fellow student.

Being neither Roman Catholic nor a member of the CTSA, I am an outsider to this conversation in many regards; but I am also, perhaps, uniquely prepared to comment on it, having taken a course on Christology from Tilley and worked carefully through several of Weinandy’s texts on the same subject. Furthermore, this conflict raises questions about the nature of the theological task and the relation of contemporary theologians to a normative tradition (and about the nature of theological normativity itself). I hope to comment on the larger issues afoot in this conversation without getting too far embroiled in the ecclesial politics surrounding them.

Weinandy’s reading of Tilley’s address is not charitable; that much is hard to dispute. Weinandy’s reading is best explained by a perception (perhaps a fear?) that Tilley’s address is indicative of a larger glacial shift, one that remains largely unspoken in the address itself, but which nevertheless represents the slow drift of academic theology into vapid conformity with an anti-ecclesial culture. Weinandy’s concerns about “relativism” and “style” certainly sound this note (though I should add, having been graded by Tilley, I can personally attest that his Christological relativism is not absolute!). To my mind, the most prescient question is less whether Weinandy responded to Tilley’s address with sufficient care and charity, (I am convinced that he did not) but whether this larger perception/fear is justifiable and whether it is justifiably applied to Tilley, or whether it is altogether misplaced.

So, where precisely is the disagreement?

Weinandy and Tilley agree in speaking about the task of theology in terms of clarifying or illuminating the mysteries of faith, taking care not to misrepresent or prematurely resolve those mysteries. Yet, Weinandy accuses Tilley of a determination to explain away the mysteries of faith in the kind of resolution of paradox that has historically marked heretical movements. And in his defense of the CDF, Tilley likely sees Weinandy upholding an unhealthily narrow fixation on particular terminology, a cathexis that distorts the concepts originally communicated by that terminology—to the detriment of the faith. In other words, both see each other defending a position that would lead to the collapse of the mysteries of faith, putting the task of theology at risk either in the stalemate of a dogged dogmatic insistence on the sufficiency of fifth-century terminology or in capitulation to a contemporary rationalistic historicism averse to any advent of the supernatural (such as the Incarnation).

So, it would seem that Tilley and Weinandy agree about the task of theology, but differ substantially on how to carry out this task. Weinandy, the historical theologian, would have us accept the dogmatic formulations of conciliar history, and then illuminate these formulae by filling out their meaning through distinctions, elaborations, and elucidations that maintain the absolute integrity of the verbal formulae used. The theologian is to explain the Christological formula of Chalcedon, for example, from the inside taking the propositional content of the formula as a foundation. The tradition’s normativity for Weinandy is largely propositional (though, I think that for Weinandy this normativity includes the cultural-intellectual framework where those propositions arose, i.e. the Christian-Platonic synthesis).

Tilley, the constructive theologian, would have us labor at some length to understand Scripture and the negotiated settlements of the conciliar tradition, and then to communicate the living truth of the tradition in the terms that best make that truth present in the contemporary situation. The theologian is to work in radical continuity with the tradition precisely by extending the tradition into the present. The tradition’s normativity for Tilley, then, is largely conceptual, and thus to a degree, not susceptible to containment within a single static vocabulary, as essential as a given vocabulary (say, Chalcedon) may remain for coming to grips with the concepts of the tradition. Tilley himself insists on expressing this in terms of a normativity of practice (in opposition to a purely intellectual conceptual normativity), but I think that the broader approach of which Tilley is representative is marked by this concern for conceptual fidelity.

Weinandy, then, either thinks that conceptual continuity is not sufficient to authentically practice theology (as distinct from propositional continuity), or thinks that Tilley’s particular conceptual development of the tradition breaks continuity and fails to measure up to the norm of the tradition. The latter charge would require a substantial engagement with Tilley’s published work, and frankly, such an engagement will fail to produce anything approaching the adoptionism/arianism that Weinandy alleges. The former, I think, requires a more extended argument than Weinandy is able to provide in his short article. Such an argument would also entail invalidating an enormous swath of contemporary theology, from Rahner to Pannenberg and beyond, figures deeply concerned to think faithfully in categories and conversations not available to early Christian writers.

Tilley is not arguing, as Weinandy suggests, that he has a monopoly on the original meaning of the terms of the Chalcedonian definition, nor that they are irretrievably lost in the abyss of history. Rather, he is arguing that it takes long, arduous work (the very sort of work that Weinandy does quite well) to inhabit the tradition sufficiently so that one can follow the contours of complex ancient conversations, and that employing the same language cannot guarantee that the same concepts are communicated. It is truly perverse for Weinandy to argue simultaneously that the plain meaning of Chalcedon is accessible to any intelligent person who reads the text with a degree of care and that Tilley has not (after a career of research) adequately grasped the Chalcedon definition. Nowhere does Tilley repudiate Chalcedon, nor call it a “total failure.” If Tilley’s recent book on Christology does not take Chalcedon as the starting point, it’s not because he’s abandoned the Incarnation of the Logos, but rather because he is tracing out the trajectory of other biblical christologies (particularly in the synoptics) that were instrumental in arriving at the convictions formulated in the creeds, but nevertheless underrepresented therein. The Disciples’ Jesus is, quite literally, a discursive effort at retracing the steps of the earliest Christological confessions, confessions that were rooted in and sustained by the practices of the communities that forged them.

Tilley’s presidential address is not sufficiently clear in articulating his conviction that the variety of christological traditions in the New Testament are not contradictory (a view that Weinandy unfairly imputes to him), but complementary in their diversity. There is more to the mysterious life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ than a single narrative trajectory can possibly contain. While Chalcedon provides a helpful hermeneutic to the New Testament, the compositional statement about two natures and a person cannot supplant the range of views of Jesus Christ that are contained in the New Testament and early Christian traditions.

To conclude, is Weinandy’s perception of an anti-ecclesial drift in the culture of academic theology justified? Perhaps, but this drift is no recent phenomenon, and it is a matter of certain conversations and movements, not a ubiquitous tipping of the theological playing field so that the academy becomes a slippery slope. Can the perception of this drift justifiably be applied to Terry Tilley in the public excoriation that he received from the pen of Thomas Weinandy? Not in the least. Weinandy needs to pick a new figurehead for the movement leading to the “Demise of the Doctrine of the Incarnation.”

looking to write a book? :: orthodox eco-theology

Whenever theology and ecology come to the same table for a chat, inevitably, Eastern Orthodoxy comes up as a church that has “gotten it right.” Someone will say that they’ve never divorced flesh and spirit the way we have in the West; laud the Eastern understanding of the sacramentality of all creation; talk about the Theophany and the blessing of all waters; or connect the dots between the Incarnation, icons and the sanctity of all matter. His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is known as the “green” Patriarch for his work advocating for ecological responsibility from a deeply Christian standpoint. 

So where is the book on ecological theology from an Eastern perspective? 

No one has written it. 

There are bits and pieces here and there—articles, chapters, and allusions—but when you go looking for something more, there is, well, not much more. I’m calling the bluff: Given the deep resources within the Orthodox tradition for ecological thinking, I’d like to see someone synthesize all this iconography and liturgy into something more explicit, more direct. Heck, in my library, there are already eight shelves full of eco-conscious Protestants and Catholics selling books on the subject!  

And if you’re willing to take me up on it, would you mind writing this before my term paper is due?