Two Narratives Parted in a Wood, Especially as Seen in Preaching

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Below is the final chapter, that I decided not to include in my pastoral letter



   This essay began with a practical occasion, the question of same-sex marriage approved in the Episcopal Church, and it will conclude with some more practical commitments.  But the vocation I have described must be wider than one issue. I have already mentioned how a welter of other questions are before the Church: the triune Name, communion for the unbaptized, the offense that atonement - and sin - terminology, and the term ‘Lord,’ pose for some. The list goes on, but these are not best understood, seriatim, as ‘issues’ which we campaign for or against.  Nor do things line up perfectly: some who favor the marriage revision oppose the other changes, for example.  Moving past the one presenting issue complexifies the problem before us and requires us to ask some wide-ranging questions.   Here is a more general, but no less important, question:  how did we get here? How can there be such divergences in our understanding of things we hold in common?  To be sure, there have been debates and conflicts in the Church since Paul wrote his epistles. To be sure, disagreements are influenced by many factors, political, social, psychological.  People don’t just sit down and get to their commitments by syllogism.  But modes of thinking that are in the air do have their effect, and that is what we want to reflect on in this chapter.  Whence our differing modes of theological approach?

     Throughout the centuries of the Church’s life, preachers and teachers have interpreted the stories and instructions of the Bible. And because it was God’s Word, they assumed that it was true, and more profoundly so than other writings; it could be simultaneously true at different levels and in different ways. It could convey a reliable account of something that happened, but at the same time tell us something about who Christ is, something about how things will be at the end, and something about how we, in turn, ought to think and act.  This is called the ‘plenitude of sense’, that is, the multi-leveled fullness of the Bible’s truth. So, Jesus heals the leper. At the same time, the story tells us how we will hope for transformation to the perfect wholeness on the Last Day, and, in the meantime, how conversion has healed my feelings, or memories, or intentions. It is easy to see how these senses pop up in different degrees in sermons, as they should. 

      But an important shift takes place in the modern era. Perhaps it was under the influence of science, or changes in the social order. It comes to be assumed that God is unknowable, and our own knowing is limited to the things of time and space. (To be sure, the ancients agreed with both these, but also believed He made Himself known in a way ‘accommodated’ to our condition).  If there is such a gulf fixed between knowing God and knowing ourselves, then what is religion to do?[1]

       At this point I want to introduce the figure of Friedrich Schleiermacher, a German Protestant writer and teacher in the early 19th Century.  He was apparently a stubborn sort - I once read that he insisted on lecturing, at the University of Berlin, at the same hour as his ‘rock-star’ rival Hegel, as a result of which he had only a handful of students.  But his writings caused wider ripples, The most famous was titled On Religion: For its Cultured Despisers.  In the title he sets forth his goal, which is surely recognizable to us, to put in a good word for religion to an elite which thinks it is beyond all that.  It was as if he were saying ‘don’t reject it all so easily, it isn’t really saying what you think…no, it’s saying something much closer to what you already think, if only you would learn how to hear it.”  But, as you can see, the danger is that one might end up reducing the Word to its context in order to ‘save’ it.

       Schleiermacher, in his later writings, showed how theological terms, Trinity, atonement, judgment, were really terms, not about God per se, but about us as we experience ourselves in light of the infinite.  This is not so very different from how  traditional preaching described something happened inside us similar to what happened in the story outside of us.[2]  The trouble is that this is no longer one ‘sense,’ alongside the narrative and the theological senses, but it now takes center-stage.  The Bible is really about us, albeit, as we face toward God. That is a revolution as dramatic as the Copernican, though it has, as I have noted, a dimension of truth in it.  Traditionally, the resurrection of Jesus happened, though how it did so, and the full dimensions of its doing so, we grapple to understand, and as a result, we can see how our minds and hearts are ‘raised’.[3]  But now ‘resurrection’ is a symbol for new hope springing up in my life. This application to ourselves becomes the main thing. 

      Schleiermacher primarily found in traditional language about God a description of our hearts, our inner states.  Again, this was not altogether new, for the pietists (the early evangelicals) were interested in the states of the heart, relevant as they were to conversion. Think here of the emotionalism of revival religion.  The change was that the effects had become the main thing. In fact, Schleiermacher described himself as a ‘pietist of a higher order,’ a kind of uptown revivalist[4]. It is easy to see where this trajectory would lead. Consider for example how many preachers have translated the language of salvation into psychological terms, in the baldest sense making salvation into affirmation, insight, or emotional maturity.  Don’t get me wrong, where the Holy Spirit is at work, people are healed, including their emotions or memories.  But there is a loss where the preacher tries a one-for-one correlation.[5] ‘Seek first the Kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.’[6], but that doesn’t mean those added things are the Kingdom sought.

       I am making some sweeping generalizations, and things don’t usually break down into ‘either/ors’ so neatly in life. But there remains something to what I am saying. I have given this section the Frostian title, ‘two narratives diverge…’  You can see how this different way of interpreting does map out a distinct, though related, alternative story lines, one dealing with our own transformation, for which the Biblical story becomes, at worst, a kind of colorful fable.[7]  You can see how all of this requires of us as preachers and hearers a sense of order and proportion, to keep first things first, to make sure ‘what the Lord has done for me’ is most of all about Him.

         Now the description of our inner states, of our feelings, is not the only type of ‘re-narrating’ that took place.  Another trajectory re-described salvation in more societal and political terms.  This has come to have more liberal and more radical sub-categories, but the idea is the same:  The Biblical narrative may be best translated as liberation.  Clearly liberation is a Biblical idea, with his prime warrant in the Exodus narrative. And there are plenty of examples of the moral sense of Scripture having powerful political effects which we would applaud.  It was from Scripture that the evangelical energy for abolition was derived, from Scripture that the earlier voice of protest against the dehumanization of indigenous people in the Americas of de las Casas was raised.[8]  Liberation theology began from within the matrix of Roman Catholic doctrine and theology in figures like Gutierrez or Boff, and found expression in some like Rene Padilla among evangelicals; these are all serious Christian voices.[9]  Still, it runs the risk of offering an underlying narrative, what the story is ‘really’ about, politically, that overwhelms the Biblical ‘grand narrative’ itself.  We all have at times heard this kind of preaching too.

       The great Reformed theologian in the 20th Century, Karl Barth, once said that ‘speaking about God is not speaking about the human in a loud voice.’  The human is all we know, except…for the revelation of God we are given in Scripture.  Of course preaching must seek out examples that are human, like its hearers- until we discover those Martians, it’s the only option we have.  But preaching is not simply self-help, or political organizing, creative writing, of a higher order.  It attends to describing, as best it can, what the passage tells us about who Jesus Christ is, which invariably leads to who He is ‘for us.’ Then we do indeed have ‘all these things added unto’ us, political, psychological, contemplative, but none of them quite as we expected.

[1] For those recalling their college philosophy days, I have in mind the change that Kant’s philosophy of knowing brought about.

[2] the technical term is the ‘tropological.’

[3] Colossians 3:1

[4] cite

[5] The term is that of Paul Tillich, a 20th century theologian influential for our Church; he was more subtle than this, but what followed in his wake often was not.

[6] matthew

[7] The philosopher Hegel said the Bible was ‘picture thinking,’ which, when properly decoded, led to…his own system!

[8] cite

[9] cite

Anselm of Canterbury

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Daughters of the King  

Dallas Assembly

Anselm of Canterbury 4/21/2018

Sometimes it feels as if we live in two worlds.  We hear the news, or talk to friends who don’t feel the need for God, then we go to church and listen to the Scripture. How do we put the two together?  Sometimes they feel as if they were close. That neighbor has yearnings for the meaning of it all, or senses there is some higher power. Sometimes it seems as the world pursuing power, the world bounded by death, is the opposite of the world of the bible. Which is it? How do they fit together? 

Anselm of Canterbury was born and lived in the 11th Century, a Frenchman who eventually moved to England, and served as the Archbishop of Canterbury.  He was a great theologian, writing some of the most famous reflections on God’s word in history.  But he was also what we would call an "administrator," running the growing monastery of Bec. In his career he was a priest, thinker, man of prayer, administrator, and politician.  How did he hold all that together?   Along the way he was very interested in relating human thought, on its own, with God’s word - do they clash or do they fit, or both? He served the church in an era in which the king thought that he should have the power to make decisions for the Church. How does the kingdom of this world related to the kingdom of God?  You can see that Anselm was a man who lived in at least two worlds. 

Let me share with you two of his greatest ideas, at least in outline.  Anselm wondered about the idea of God which He has planted in our minds. The very idea of Him is wonderful and mysterious. It raises its own question - is it really so? What kind of animal could think such a thought, and who made such a creature? Anselm called it the thought of "that which nothing greater could be thought?" either you say yes or else it nags at you all your days….God means it so! The earlier theologian Augustine said God made our hearts restless till they rest in Him…Anselm is following in his tracks.  You can see that God made us to struggle between our world and the truth he offers to us - the two worlds are not disconnected, but they are not the same. He doesn’t mean for people to be at peace without Him, but He wants thought to lead on to the challenge of faith!

At this point we need to consider our Gospel passage from Matthew.  There is wisdom of this world, and it is often valuable.  But there is a deeper wisdom which we cannot achieve or control on our own. I am thinking of how C.S. Lewis said that there was a deep magic of the world, we might call it the law of nature, and a deeper magic, a deeper law, of mercy, creation, freedom in service, salvation, eternity. Of God. The deeper one seems simpler, because is a door that has to be entered with the childlike trust we call faith. But when you walk through, you see the everyday world in a truer and deeper way.  It is not as if the eggheads understand everything better, but rather only when you build on the rock of faith can you build a real house of wisdom. It lets you see the real world more really.  So Jesus thanks his Father for revealing the deeper wisdom to the ones he calls ‘babes,’ the trusting, the believers.

Now I want to go on to the second great thought of Anselm for today. We say "Jesus died on the cross." And we acknowledge that as an example of God’s love for us.  But what did it actually do so as to change my situation and to restore my relation to God which was blocked?  Anselm answers this question.  He asks us - would you want a God who just said "whatever" in response to sin? Wouldn’t you want him to be a God for whom justice mattered? Then in the face of wrong there has to be a consequence, a penalty? And since we are in the wrong, only we can pay…but as sinners we can’t.  The only one fit to do so is God….but he has no sin.  But if there were one who could stand up for us, who is the holy God, but also a human, yet without sin, then his sacrifice  would fit the bill.   And we Christians believe there is one such.  This does not prove faith, but it shows it to make good sense, if you start from the relationship of faith.

Love the Lord God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Anselm had to do that given all the different hats he wore. But we are all commanded to do that. We have to think and read about our faith, so we can admire how the two worlds become one as both God’s. but it starts with faith, and it is warmed by prayer and by feeling, and it has to lead to action, to will, to suffering, to perseverance.  As these all come together, as they fit, we slowly come round right. And of this too blessed Anselm is a encouraging example. Amen.  

Hijas del Rey

Asamblea Diócesis de Dallas

Anselmo de Canterbury 21/04/2018

A veces se siente como si viviéramos en dos mundos. Escuchamos las noticias, o hablamos con amigos que no sienten la necesidad de Dios, luego vamos a la iglesia y escuchamos las Escrituras. ¿Cómo ponemos las dos cosas juntas? A veces parece como si estuvieran cerca. Ese vecino tiene anhelos por el significado de todo, o siente que hay un poder superior. A veces parece que el mundo persigue el poder, el mundo limitado por la muerte, es lo opuesto al mundo de la Biblia. ¿Cuál es? ¿Cómo encajan?

Anselmo de Canterbury nació y vivió en el siglo XI, un Francés que eventualmente se mudó a Inglaterra y se desempeñó como Arzobispo de Canterbury. Fue un gran teólogo, escribiendo algunas de las reflexiones más famosas sobre la Palabra de Dios en la historia. Pero también era lo que llamaríamos un 'administrador', dirigiendo el creciente monasterio de Bec. En su carrera fue sacerdote, pensador, hombre de oración, administrador y político. ¿Cómo mantuvo todo eso unido? En el camino, estaba muy interesado en relacionar el pensamiento humano, por sí mismo, con la Palabra de Dios: ¿chocan o encajan, o ambas cosas? Anselmo sirvió a la iglesia en una era en la que el rey pensó que debería tener el poder de tomar decisiones por la Iglesia. ¿Cómo se relaciona el reino de este mundo con el Reino de Dios? Como puede ver Anselmo era un hombre que vivía en al menos dos mundos.

Permítanme compartir con ustedes dos de sus mejores ideas, al menos en líneas generales. Anselmo se preguntó acerca de la idea de Dios que Él plantó en nuestras mentes. La sola idea de ÉL es maravillosa y misteriosa.  Y plantea su propia pregunta: ¿es realmente así? ¿Qué clase de animal podría tener semejante pensamiento, y quién hizo semejante criatura? Anselmo lo llamó la idea de "lo que nada más grande podría ser pensado", o bien usted dice que sí o de lo contrario le molesta todos sus días ... ¡Dios significa esto y más! El teólogo anterior, Agustín, dijo que Dios hizo que nuestros corazones se inquietaran hasta que descansaran en Él ... Anselmo lo sigue en seco. Usted puede ver que Dios nos hace luchar entre nuestro mundo y la verdad que ÉL nos ofrece: los dos mundos no están desconectados, pero no son lo mismo. Él no quiere que las personas estén en paz sin Él, ¡sino que quiere que el pensamiento conduzca al desafío de la fe!      

En este punto, debemos considerar nuestro pasaje del Evangelio de San Mateo. Existe la sabiduría de este mundo, y a menudo es valiosa. Pero hay una sabiduría más profunda que no podemos lograr o controlar por nuestra cuenta. Estoy pensando en lo que dijo CS Lewis que había una magia profunda del mundo, podríamos llamarla la ley de la naturaleza, y una magia más profunda, una ley más profunda, de misericordia, creación, libertad en el servicio, salvación, eternidad. De Dios. El más profundo parece más simple, porque es una puerta que debe ser ingresada con la confianza infantil que llamamos fe. Pero cuando entras, ves el mundo cotidiano de una manera más verdadera y profunda. No es como si los intelectuales entendieran todo mejor, sino que solo cuando construyes sobre la roca de la fe puedes construir una verdadera casa de sabiduría. Te permite ver el mundo real más efectivamente. Así que Jesús agradece a su Padre por revelar la sabiduría más profunda a los que ÉL llama 'niños', los confiados, los creyentes.

Ahora quiero pasar al segundo gran pensamiento de Anselmo para hoy. Decimos que 'Jesús murió en la cruz.' Y lo reconocemos como un ejemplo del amor de Dios por nosotros. Pero, ¿qué hizo realmente para cambiar mi situación y restablecer mi relación con Dios que estaba bloqueada? Anselmo responde esta pregunta. Él nos pregunta: ¿querrías un Dios que dice "lo que sea" en respuesta al pecado? ¿No querrías que fuera un Dios para quien la justicia importaba? Entonces, frente al mal, tiene que haber una consecuencia, ¿una penalización? Y dado que estamos equivocados, solo nosotros podemos pagar ... pero como pecadores no podemos. El único apto para hacerlo es Dios ... pero Dios no tiene pecado. Pero si hubiera alguien que pudiera defendernos, que fuese el Dios santo, y al mismo tiempo también un ser humano, pero sin pecado, entonces su sacrificio sería el adecuado. Y nosotros los cristianos creemos que hay uno. Esto no prueba la fe, pero muestra que tiene sentido, si parte de la relación de fe.

Ama al Señor Dios con todo tu corazón, alma, mente y fuerza. Anselmo tenía que hacer eso teniendo en cuenta todos los diferentes sombreros que llevaba. Pero a todos se nos ordena que hagamos eso. Tenemos que pensar y leer acerca de nuestra fe, para poder admirar cómo los dos mundos se funden en uno ambos en Dios.

Todo comienza con la fe, y se aviva con la oración y el sentimiento, y tiene que conducir a la acción, a la voluntad, al sufrimiento, a la perseverancia. Cuando todos se juntan, a medida que encajan, lentamente damos la vuelta a la derecha. Y de esto el bendito Anselmo es un ejemplo alentador. Amén.

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