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Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

Pete Rollins is planning a talk in Belfast in September to explain that The Apocalypse isn’t coming – it’s already happened.

Fundamentalist Christianity has long expressed a view of apocalypse as some future event that will consume the present world and replace it with a new one. Yet while this is a bloody and destructive vision, I will argue that it is inherently conservative in nature… For those who hold to such a vision are willing to imagine absolutely everything around them changing so that their present values and beliefs can remain utterly unchanged.  In contrast I will argue that a Christian apocalypse describes something much more radical, namely an event that fundamentally ruptures and re-configures our longings, hopes and desires…

This resonates with me, although I’m waiting to see where Rollins will take it.  If he has not forgotten his Greek, he will oblige us I hope with a vision of a true ‘apocalypse’ – not earth-scorching destruction but paradigm-shattering revelation.

I have made two attempts here to articulate my own growing sense that the Apocalypse is already history.  In January I first hinted at my post-apocalyptic ‘vision’ when I called out the folly of Harold (“I did the math”) Camping’s predictions of a Day of Reckoning for May 21 of this year.  But I’ve since elaborated a bit more of my view that puts us now almost a century past the end-times of a less-than-edifying ‘Protestant-Catholic’ Christian dispensation.

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The parable of the Sower as a critique of church and theology?  I was surprised at how easily the tables can be turned to transfer the ‘onus’ from Gospel-hearers onto the heads of Gospel-preachers whose method and theologies limit our ability to hear and enter into the Kingdom.

“You may as well be pitching birdseed on the Roman road,” Jesus seems to say (Mt 13:18), “if you present to men a Kingdom of God having so little of the flavor of my Spirit that it is perceived as either humdrum or humbug” – the issue in this verse is lack of understanding, a problem which implicates teachers as well as students whenever man-made doctrines are either spiritually or morally flat or unintelligible and therefore misunderstood by large numbers of people.

“On the other hand,” we hear him saying (Mt 13:20-21), “if you think emotional hooks will frighten people into the Kingdom with threats covered by cheap grace, or entice them in with promises of great beds of roses, you are no better than the hardpan farmer who will not plow” – the issue here is lack of depth, and this implicates teachers as well as students if emotional appeals have cultivated shallow joyous puppets who are unprepared for the very tests of doubt and persecution in which their Savior must come to meet them.

“And it is a mistake,” he seems to imply (Mt 13:22), “to pitch my own sublime cares and delights in terms which resemble too much the cares of the world and its delights” – the issue here is confusion of realms, and this implicates teachers as well as students where preaching strives to resemble the everyday wisdom of the world in so many ways that the Kingdom is confused for the world and the spirit is choked by unspiritual meanings and values.

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I was helped recently by some lines from American poet Walt Whitman while contemplating problems of prayer and providence which I addressed in two posts earlier this year.

Warning:  Whitman is famous for his optimism (and often criticized for it), but I like to reserve judgment on the ‘optimism’ of great poets, because they sometimes enjoy the prospect of horizons that lie beyond our own poor curve of earth.   The theological critic especially should check for signs of the optimism of the Gospel – the metaphysical ground of all really good news.

It was in the poem “Assurances” that I found this:

I do not doubt that the passionately-wept deaths of young men
are provided for,

and that the deaths of young women and the deaths of little children are provided for,

(Did you think Life was so well provided for, and Death, the
purport of all Life, is not well provided for?)

I do not doubt that wrecks at sea, no matter what the horrors of them,

no matter whose wife, child, husband, father, lover, has gone down, are provided for, to the minutest points …

Leaves of Grass,  Book XXX)

At first glance these lines sound like the standard theological justification for evil – that God trumps present evil by blessings (or woes) in an afterlife.  But reading with my own questions about providence in mind, I saw a useful distinction between provision for and provision against evil which takes the problem to the next level.

The concept of divine intervention which looks for an external power to fend off specific material evils is such a very old idea that we may call it not just ancient but even pagan or superstitious – this is the idea that God provides against calamity.

What if a system of divine providence could be conceived in which a billion individual contingencies may be fully provided for without having to apologize for the fact that they are not specifically provided against in their minutest points?  Whitman’s concern is with the extreme case of innocent death – but taking the set of all possible evil events in a life, how would the distinction work?

What’s different about the idea that God provides for calamity is that it suggests to me a divine intervention functioning on the level of an inner spiritual presence or ‘help’ that is universal and personal and constantly available for the task of overcoming evil with good (Rom. 12:21).

If God has bestowed a  spirit  of  presence  to be with  us  in all  our  afflictions,  even as  he  is  afflicted  with  us  (Isa 63:9), there is no need of vain doctrines about protective shields intervening between ourselves and all possible evil contingencies.

This is not a providence that is passively hoped for in advance of the evil.  But neither is it hoped for after the evil, as compensation.  It is instead available in the very moment in which we are literally swamped by the evil – after we have done every material and moral thing we possibly can to avoid it.  Such provision for evil brings a consolation that is hidden not beforehand or afterward but in the very moment of calamity.  This is a providence of  the present moment – where we find God truly meeting and providing for every time-space contingency in the only truly Godly way – with Himself, in his Son, and by his Spirit.

Surviving victims of catastrophe and terrible loss will I think vouch for this inner truth whenever they have been able to see the evil of the moment overcome by good.

(to be continued)

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I will hear what the Lord God speaks within me

Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis (1441), Book III, Chap 1

Book III of The Imitation of Christ contains teaching so high and unusually bold, it is easy to imagine that the text was purposely ‘hidden’ after Books I and II – two books full of admonitions and warnings – in order that readers might be ‘screened’ for humility, to be sure they are worthy to behold Book III.

The quote above is actually a paraphrase of Psalm 85:8 – but a’ Kempis trims it down to the pure gold of personal inner experience.  The Bible verse is more general; check it out:

“Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,

for he will speak peace to his people,

to his saints, to those who turn to him in their hearts.”

(RSV – Ps 84 in some Bibles)

‘The gift of ears,’ is of course not among the spiritual gifts listed by Paul, but I think the New Testament provides grounds for a  more general recognition of the authenticity of inspired ‘hearing’.  Back to The Imitation:

Blessed is the soul that hears the Lord speaking within her, and receives from his mouth the word of consolation.  Blessed the ears that catch the pulse of the divine whisper, and take no notice of the whisperings of this world.

(Book III, Chap 2, trans. Justin McCann, 1954)

But would-be prophets should understand that a gift like this “divine whisper” is for individual admonition and enlightenment only – not a word by which we may ‘lord it over’ neighbor or church.  Only the individual Christian is justified in risking such a prayer as this, which the author makes for himself:

Let not Moses, nor any of the prophets, speak to me;

Speak Thou, rather, O Lord God, the inspirer and enlightener of all the prophets;

For Thou alone, without them, can perfectly instruct me; but they, without Thee, will avail me nothing…

They give the letter, but Thou dost disclose the spirit.

They announce mysteries, but Thou dost unlock their secret meaning.

They declare the commandments, but Thou dost enable us to fulfil them.

They point out the way, but Thou givest strength to walk in it.

They work outwardly only, but Thou dost instruct and enlighten the heart.

They water without, but Thou givest the increase.

(Book III, Chap 2)

I think the ‘gift of ears’ – rightly used – is perhaps the master-key to all gifts of the Spirit – yielding to each individual the precious boon of judgment, of righteousness, and conviction of sin.

Do Thou speak, O Lord my God, the eternal Truth, lest I die and prove fruitless, if I be admonished outwardly only, and not enkindled within; lest I be condemned at the Judgment because the word was heard and not fulfilled, known and not loved, believed and not observed.

(Book III, Chap 2)

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The school of “Boston Personalism” which flourished in the first half of the twentieth century deserves a higher public awareness – their relative obscurity is significant for my thesis that Christianity’s best modern minds have been undeservedly “submerged” by historical forces which favored less worthy ideas.

Gary Dorrien (Union Theol. Sem.) brings this sunken strand of personalist theology and philosophy closer to the surface in Vol. 3 of his history of liberal theology.

The most coherent school of American liberal theology took its inspiration from the personalistic idealism of a single thinker. Borden Parker Bowne [1847-1910].

(Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology, Vol. 3, Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, p. 286)

The premier theologian of the Boston Personalists was Albert Cornelius Knudson (1873-1953), who earned a Ph.D. under B.P. Bowne in 1900 and eventually became dean of the Boston University School of Theology.

Knudson was the product of Midwest Methodist piety and a graduate school conversion… Though he came late to his theological calling [note: he began his career teaching Old and New Testament criticism], it was Knudson especially who made Bowne-style personalism a significant theological school   (Dorrien, p. 286)

And, in honor of Father’s Day:

His father Asle was a distinguished and impeccably orthodox Methodist pastor… Knudson later recalled that the sanctificationist Wesleyan piety of his parents was “all very simple, but it was intensely real and vivid.” It remained vitally real to him long after he discarded much of his father’s theology. “I was allowed to go my own way, and no regret was expressed at my later departure from some of the tenets of the traditional evangelicalism in which I had been brought up. Whatever may have been my father’s feelings about the matter, he had an instinctive reverence for the honest convictions of others and was quite willing that I should work out my own intellectual salvation.” (Ibid, 286-7)

Knudson’s parents were immigrants from Norway and “their home life and Asle Knudson’s preaching emphasized the centrality of spiritual experience.“ (p. 286)

A second important theological and practical influence in Boston personalistic theology came from Methodist bishop Francis J. McConnell, another thinker with a Ph.D. under Bowne.

The philosopher of the school was Edgar Sheffield Brightman, a late student of Bowne’s and a professor of philosophy at Boston U.

The rise of personalism at Boston ought to have been an inspiration for a generation of liberals, whose optimism was badly stunned by the intransigence of the corporate barons and the horrors of WWI.

“Boston Personalism” acquired school status in the very years that liberal self-confidence began to erode.” (p. 286)

American theology has always been characterized by the strife of its competing sectarian bailiwicks, and I think the Methodist antecedents of the Boston school probably contributed to its failure to attract a wide following among non-Methodist religious thinkers. Many Methodists themselves disliked the Boston school’s more liberal approach to theology and scripture.

I think it is sad that a perverse sectarianism infects so much of American religious thought even today.  From the nineteenth century, each sect has had its own seminaries and its own journals – filled with opinionated criticism of new developments in all the other sects.  There has been little opportunity for a pooling of religious genius in this country, and therefore no great salient of progressive Christian thought.  Although each sect seems to have had in every generation at least one thinker of unusual caliber, there were no ‘schools’ formed beyond the pale of a given denomination. It was not until the rise of secular universities very late in the 19th century that we see the fruit of combined intellectual powers from different backgrounds – except this fertility was chiefly won for non-religious concerns

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when the birthday party’s over, and the pastors are home wondering how the festivities came off, I say two or three of us come back here and pray over this mess of confetti, and ribbons, and paper lace.

Has a great religion of the Spirit been obstructed by a Christianity of the flesh?

If the way of grace and truth bestowed by God’s Anointed was meant for the whole world, why after nearly 2000 years does more than half the world still remain aloof from its blessing?

I sincerely doubt those who say that this harvest shortfall was preordained. The tardy consummation of the church’s mission cannot even any longer be covered by the Son’s teaching regarding slow-growth (mustard seed, drop of leaven, etc) – because it is the number outside the church that is slowly growing.

The failure of the church cannot be of God, but of men. If the cause of all spiritual advance realized so far is of Christ, it stands to reason that the frustration of this advance is due to human errors which hang too heavily over that human institution which was charged with bearing God’s truth to the world. Can I get a pastor to agree with me here? I doubt it.

Instead of equating the human doctrines of Christianity with truth and orthodoxy, maybe we should check to see whether they have not been admixed with enough human error to obscure the whole truth revealed in Christ.

Instead of acquiescing in the church’s well-meaning attempt to symbolize the truth of Christ by sacraments, ritual, and old liturgies, maybe we should ask whether living truth has not been more deeply hidden, to less effect, by these mysteries.

The causes for the church’s failure might lie too close for us to see, “hidden in plain sight.” A good example is Pentecost itself, which the church has been pleased to celebrate as her own rather exclusive birthday party. She teaches that the Holy Spirit itself was given to her as a birthday present – always explaining that it is her members (only) who receive this gift. People visiting Jerusalem that day from other parts of the world, she says, were instructed about the death, resurrection and eminent return of the Messiah, and told it would be their doom unless they received membership with them through repentance and baptism.

I do not reject the idea that the church would have been unborn or stillborn without the aid of Christ’s new Spirit, but I think this Spirit can be limited in its effectiveness by false teachings which are alleged to determine its availability.

How well are we really able to see the true meaning of the day when the church insists on carrying on so? Tonight, when the birthday party’s over, and the pastors are home wondering how the festivities came off, I say two or three of us come back here and pray over this mess of confetti, and ribbons, and paper lace. Because I think the gift given on this day by God’s Anointed was meant to be a universal opportunity of atonement that transcends Baptism and orthodoxy.

If I’m right, it is the church’s failure to understand Pentecost that has curtailed her own effectiveness and obstructed the Kingdom.

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I have been pleased enough with a 3-day review of writings by Richard Whately (1787-1863) to want him and his school on the front end of my project of cultural archaeology.  My aim in this project is to appreciate some under-appreciated Christian thinkers whose work has become submerged or ‘lost’ beneath other and stronger (not more worthy) religious and intellectual trends.

My long century is shaping up to extend roughly from 1820-1940.  I will eventually be focused on the later half of my period, works c.1875-1935 which I judge to be more valuable than Whately’s though no less submerged; but it was important for me first to find a theoretical ‘early strata’ for my project.

Richard Whately was elected Fellow of Oriel college, Oxford, in 1811; his first major work, The Use and Abuse of Party Feeling in Religion, reproduced his Bampton lectures of 1822.  Whately became a prolific and respected author and the acknowledged leader of what has been called the early Oriel School or the Noetic school in English theology and philosophy.  This group, including the older Edward Copleston and the younger R.D. Hampden and Thomas Arnold, and others, was a spiritual force at Oriel College and at Oxford until Whately was effectively taken out of the local picture in 1831, when Lord Grey dispatched him to Ireland as Archbishop of Dublin, an office he held I think until his death in 1863.

Shortly after Whately’s departure to Dublin, a second Oriel group caused such a stir in their rising as to eclipse the writing of the Noetics in the public eye.  This later group included John Keble, John Henry Newman, and Edward Pusey, and others who comprised the Anglo-Catholic ‘Oxford Movement ‘.  These later thinkers need no archaeology – they have their fame – which contributed not a little to the relative obscurity of the Noetics.  But the dialectic between them will give me opportunity  to take into consideration the ‘greater names’ from time to time.

In an earlier post I signaled my esteem of Samuel Taylor Coleridge as a religious thinker who enabled many nineteenth century minds to maintain their bearings as Christians even in their criticism of Christianity.  My archaeology of obscure men will take in the stream of Coleridge’s thought initially through the work of Julius Charles Hare (1795-1855).  Hare, who lectured at Cambridge in the 1820s and 30s, will allow me to bring that University into the picture.  In America, my project will find its origin in the writing of Horace Bushnell (1802-1876) and others like him.

Warning:  thinkers like Richard Whately (and others among my unknowns) don’t usually generate broad or flattering Google searches (food for gossips and wikipediacs).  Too often the antique quality of minor traits and opinions of early modern minds can be falsely accentuated and give to postmodern eyes the appearance of a quirky or unenlightened personality.  Of course that’s a large factor in the present obscurity of my unknowns, which in my opinion they do not deserve.

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