Generous Orthodoxy  

Friday, January 25, 2008

A man to give thanks for

This is the kind of person that brings credit to us all. George M. Houser, Methodist minister--
Click on this link:

Monday, January 14, 2008

A spendid accolade for Karl Barth in (gasp) the New York Times

In the New York Times book review section yesterday, Jim Holt (who I understand has an Episcopal priest in his background somewhere), reviews a book (yet another one) purporting to prove that God does not exist. The book is called Proof and it is by a mathematician, John Allen Paulos.

In the review, Holt notes that Paulos,"like other neo-atheist authors," is "innocent of theology....Ann Coulter turns up in his index, but one looks in vain for the name of a great religious thinker like Karl Barth, who saw theology as an effort to understand what faith has given, not a quest for logical proof."


Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Da Vinci Code and the Nicene Creed

In the hurly-burly of my files I found a three-year-old article by distinguished Roman Catholic academic and journalist Peter Steinfels, who writes a column for The New York Times every other Saturday. Nine times out of ten he has something both helpful and challenging to say. This column remains timely (I am sorry to say that a number of people dear to me have attached themselves to The Da Vinci Code [which, if Dan Brown had any learning or integrity whatsoever, would have been called The Leonardo Code] ). So the battle goes on. Here are some verbatim excerpts:

What's a Creed Good For?
Stirring up a hot debate, for one thing. Making a radical stand, for another.

by Peter Steinfels

The New York Times, June 5, 2004

"At least since the middle of the nineteenth century," writes Luke Timothy Johnson, "being part of the intelligentsia has meant despising creeds in general and Christianity's creed in particular."

For the modern mind, he continues, "belief in a creed is a sign of intellectual failure," an abandonment of critical thinking, a rejection of scientific evidence and a subordination of individual judgment to the herd mentality.

But more than many other religions, Professor Johnson points out in his book The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters, (2003), Christianity has insisted on the centrality of beliefs as well as deeds. Not that all Christians have accepted the classic creeds of their faith. Some have considered them a dangerous substitute for Scripture, a tool of hierarchical church authority or a distraction from heartfelt faith and virtuous living...

....[In] Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code...the fourth-century Nicene Creed, which has served Christian churches as a standard of orthodoxy over the centuries, is portrayed as nothing but a power play by which the emperor Constantine and patriarchal church authorities ruthlessly suppressed evidence that Jesus was not divine.

By now, Mr. Brown's coy claims to factuality have been pounded to an intellectual pulp. Even the latest publication of the Jesus Seminar, the scholars whose claims to dissect the Gospels did much to prepare the ground for Mr. Brown's fiction, carries an article on "The Da Vinci Fraud"...

Professor Johnson [is] a professor of the New Testament at Emory University's Candler School of Theology...The bulk of [his] book is a phrase-by-phrase, sometimes word-by-word, explication of the Nicene Creed, from "We believe in one God" to "the life of the world to come" and, finally, "Amen."

This is a mix of textual scholarship, early Christian history and theological reflection that should prove invigorating not only to the devout but also to the many Christians who, as Professor Johnson realizes, either sleepwalk their way through the creed when it is recited in their churches or puzzle over it or even privately edit out the parts that seem discomforting.

...he argues [that] the creed was not a fourth-century imposition of a politically motivated conformity, nor was it an abstract philosophical document rather than one grounded in the Scripture and religious experience. Instead, he sees the creed as an organic development deeply rooted in the biblical texts, which are profusely cited, and in the questions early Christians had to answer to maintain their integrity and to explain their experience of the living, risen Jesus...

From the start Christians had formulated a variety of creedal statements, he said in a phone conversation on Thursday, as they struggled with the question of "how to call God Lord and Jesus Lord at the same time."

...Where scholars like [Elaine]Pagels see the creed as narrowing the possibilities for Christianity, Professor Johnson sees the creed as empowering and opening up possibilities. He sees the creed as providing the church with "a clear and communal sense of identity" that enables it to make demands on its members and "to speak a prophetic word to the world."

..."Creedal Christians are able to offer a world desperate for significance and direction a unique vision of the world's origin, meaning and destiny," he writes, an alternative to the "nihilism" of the marketplace and a basis on which to "challenge the dominant idolatries by which the world mainly runs."

...Obviously, Professor Johnson views reciting the creed not as an act of submission but as one of subversion: "My aim is to make the creed controversial for those Christians who say it but do not understand it and therefore do not grasp what a radical and offensive act they perform," he writes.

After all, he adds with his typical brio, "there is something in the creed to offend virtually every contemporary sensibility."


Note: I also recommend a splendid book about our shorter creed, Exploring and Proclaiming the Apostles' Creed, edited by Roger van Harn (Eerdmans, 2004). Full disclosure: I am among those who contributed a chapter (on "The Resurrection of the Body").

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

What has become of us?

I read most of The New York Times every day, but I almost never read the editorials. I find them predictable, boring, and not especially well written. However, when I saw that an editorial called "Looking at America" had been "most emailed" for two days, I clicked on it and read it. It is definitely worth reading. Here it is, in toto:


Looking at America

There are too many moments these days when we cannot recognize our country. Sunday was one of them, as we read the account in The New York Times of how men in some of the most trusted posts in the nation plotted to cover up the torture of prisoners by Central Intelligence Agency interrogators by destroying videotapes of their sickening behavior. It was impossible to see the founding principles of the greatest democracy in the contempt these men and their bosses showed for the Constitution, the rule of law and human decency.

It was not the first time in recent years we’ve felt this horror, this sorrowful sense of estrangement, not nearly. This sort of lawless behavior has become standard practice since Sept. 11, 2001.

The country and much of the world was rightly and profoundly frightened by the single-minded hatred and ingenuity displayed by this new enemy. But there is no excuse for how President Bush and his advisers panicked — how they forgot that it is their responsibility to protect American lives and American ideals, that there really is no safety for Americans or their country when those ideals are sacrificed.

Out of panic and ideology, President Bush squandered America’s position of moral and political leadership, swept aside international institutions and treaties, sullied America’s global image, and trampled on the constitutional pillars that have supported our democracy through the most terrifying and challenging times. These policies have fed the world’s anger and alienation and have not made any of us safer.

In the years since 9/11, we have seen American soldiers abuse, sexually humiliate, torment and murder prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq. A few have been punished, but their leaders have never been called to account. We have seen mercenaries gun down Iraqi civilians with no fear of prosecution. We have seen the president, sworn to defend the Constitution, turn his powers on his own citizens, authorizing the intelligence agencies to spy on Americans, wiretapping phones and intercepting international e-mail messages without a warrant.

We have read accounts of how the government’s top lawyers huddled in secret after the attacks in New York and Washington and plotted ways to circumvent the Geneva Conventions — and both American and international law — to hold anyone the president chose indefinitely without charges or judicial review.

Those same lawyers then twisted other laws beyond recognition to allow Mr. Bush to turn intelligence agents into torturers, to force doctors to abdicate their professional oaths and responsibilities to prepare prisoners for abuse, and then to monitor the torment to make sure it didn’t go just a bit too far and actually kill them.

The White House used the fear of terrorism and the sense of national unity to ram laws through Congress that gave law-enforcement agencies far more power than they truly needed to respond to the threat — and at the same time fulfilled the imperial fantasies of Vice President Dick Cheney and others determined to use the tragedy of 9/11 to arrogate as much power as they could.

Hundreds of men, swept up on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, were thrown into a prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, so that the White House could claim they were beyond the reach of American laws. Prisoners are held there with no hope of real justice, only the chance to face a kangaroo court where evidence and the names of their accusers are kept secret, and where they are not permitted to talk about the abuse they have suffered at the hands of American jailers.

In other foreign lands, the C.I.A. set up secret jails where “high-value detainees” were subjected to ever more barbaric acts, including simulated drowning. These crimes were videotaped, so that “experts” could watch them, and then the videotapes were destroyed, after consultation with the White House, in the hope that Americans would never know.

The C.I.A. contracted out its inhumanity to nations with no respect for life or law, sending prisoners — some of them innocents kidnapped on street corners and in airports — to be tortured into making false confessions, or until it was clear they had nothing to say and so were let go without any apology or hope of redress.

These are not the only shocking abuses of President Bush’s two terms in office, made in the name of fighting terrorism. There is much more — so much that the next president will have a full agenda simply discovering all the wrongs that have been done and then righting them.

We can only hope that this time, unlike 2004, American voters will have the wisdom to grant the awesome powers of the presidency to someone who has the integrity, principle and decency to use them honorably. Then when we look in the mirror as a nation, we will see, once again, the reflection of the United States of America.

Credit where credit is due

Speaking as one who has been quite critical of the Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori (see "The PB Has a Dream," in Ruminations) I think it is important to call favorable attention to her Christmas message, especially this part:

The long arc of biblical thinking...has to do with seeing God's care for those who have no other helper. Indeed, Jesus is understood as that helper for all who fail, by the world's terms, to save themselves. More accurately, we understand that Jesus is that helper for all.

She notes that Christmas is a time when people tend to make an extra effort to reach out to those in need, and concludes:

The challenge is to let our seasonal "seeing" transform the way we meet our neighbors through the rest of the year, and through all the coming years.

That is a good message, and one that we might all do well to reflect upon.

I would just observe that the missing ingredient in all her messages is a closer emphasis on the Biblical "arc" [a word borrowed, I think, from Dr. King] that depicts all human beings in desperate need of God's salvation--in other words, a sense of common sinfulness that transcends all categories of needy-munificent, blinded-enlightened, bound-liberated. I wish that the bien-pensant among us in the Episcopal Church would be a little less smug, a little less hortatory.