Who's Your Daddy?

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If you were to take a standard seminary course on Anglicanism, and hear who the seminal figure was for the catholic liberalism that prevails in the Episcopal Church, you would hear tell of F. D. Maurice. He taught in London in the mid-19th century. He was shy and academic, but a bit of a rebel too, refusing as he did to subscribe to the 39 Articles. It is always good to look back at the major figures in a movement, since it helps us to see where depreciation has begun at the edges of its edifice. I have been reading him lately, and want to offer three Maurician themes for today.

  1. Universalism? Maurice believed that all creation was already in Jesus Christ. He has reconciled the world to himself! (II Corinthians (5:19). In this he has a certain unlikely affinity to the great modern neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth, and more distantly, to Greek church fathers who believed in the 'apokatastasis,' the gathering of all in all in Christ. What are we to make of all this?

If we are to take Maurice's view to be a rejection of final judgment and eternal loss, I cannot join him. There is too much about these themes in the New Testament, and God honors the integrity of His own creatures too much. Just the same, we need to note something of worth in Maurice's view. The scope of salvation derives from a deep appreciation of Christ's victory.  He is the active agent of this cosmic work. It does not come from a divine shrug or from a simplistic doctrine of a good creation alone with no need of Christ. If Maurice errs, it is at least in the service of a vast conception of Christ's work. The same cannot be said of the easy universalism so often found today.

  1. 'The kingdom of Christ.'  Maurice lived at a time coming to terms with the pluralism among the churches and within the Anglican Church itself. Here too he wanted to push through to the inner spiritual reality of Christ dwelling with His people. Maurice refused to see parties within Anglicanism as antagonists, but rather as dimensions or trajectories on the truth, which require one another.  The truth in Christ for the Church requires a dialectic, flint against flint. I associate such ideas with what one might call a 'good liberalism,' providing  intellectual provision and room for one's opponent.  Have we lost some of this spirit in contemporary Episcopalianism?

  1. 'Christ among the religions.' The question of how to understand the pluralism between the religions has been a hot topic for several generations. Already in the mid-19th century Maurice was one of the theologians that could discern some perception of the divine, and some complementary role, in the religions. But they need Christ as their summation and perfection. This approach has come in for strong criticism in the 20th century. But at least he was raising the question, and at least he was placing Jesus Christ at the center of his 'inclusivist' answer. Sometimes a wrong answer for the right reason makes a worthy contribution too.    

In all three areas and others as well we do well to recall a seminal Anglican catholic with a vision more truly liberal and more deeply Christocentric than those of many of his grandchildren.



Rohr Shock

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I have met a number of colleagues who found the writings of the Catholic priest/writer on spirituality Richard Rohr illuminating. I figured I had better find out what it was all about, so on my study day recently I read his book, Everything Belongs. It is surely unfair to draw global conclusions based on a single work a decade and a half ago, but just the same, some important questions do present themselves. Its pertinence extends beyond the question of what one makes of Rohr alone.

The title itself could be related to many things: a Zen consciousness of all of reality, a more pantheistic version thereof, or perhaps a Jungian sense that good and ill, light and dark, are a single whole. I suspect that all those influences are in our author. But let’s tie it, in a more charitable and specifically Christian way, to the affirmation in Colossians 1 that all things cohere in Christ. Rohr would surely affirm such a verse, but it is important to note how he would understand it. Christ is, throughout the world, the enlightener, the teacher, the revealer -- we would come to a consciousness in ourselves of a comprehensive coherence, one in which interests of ego and competition are left behind, and the image, example, and teaching of Jesus would be the means of our seeing it. Of course Jesus does reveal, and we should transcend our own ego. But the account of our faith that results is a truncated one. The following four questions get at how.

What is the scope of this great coherence? The answer is our own consciousness, which must find true emptiness, break through, own its body non-dualistically, etc. Rohr is not offering an account ultimately of history or the world, nor is there a role of Jesus other than the one I mentioned above.

Who is the agent at work here? Well, us, insofar as we cleanse our minds, let go of what we cling to, accept reality as it is, etc. God is a great affirmation toward which such a contemplative mind can move. But He doesn’t do much in Rohr’s account.

What exactly stops us from this? Our own deceptions and illusions. There is little sense of evil or of the distorted and sinful will over which we are powerless. In this sense one can see why it appeals to us Americans, who are after all optimists.

And what then of religion? It is, positively, the beginner’s stage, and a source of accountability. But each has its own language, no better or worse than the next, to describe this universal experience of the awakened consciousness. In this sense it is hard to see how the presence of the doctrine of the crucified and risen Christ in one makes a decisive difference. And it is hard to see how the specific narratives and doctrines of each matter. This is not good news to our religious neighbors.

Of course Christianity does mean that, spiritually, our consciousness is transformed. But this is always a consequence of something more basic -- the claim about who Jesus Christ is. In Him, not us, all things cohere -- Colossians 1 is a great Christological hymn and exclamation. Going back to the beginning, compelling forms of spirituality, which were almost orthodox, tried to speak to our personal and individual lives much as Rohr does. The great example in early Christianity was Gnosticism, which means in Greek ‘knowledge’ or ‘enlightenment.’ But the pieces they left out was no addendum, it was the treasure you find in a field, for which you pay all that you have.





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Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.