On orthodoxy and community

Rod Dreher is concerned about the relationship between orthodoxy and the current emphasis on community within the church in  Christianity without Orthodoxy, in doing so he perhaps has two questions in mind.

First, there is the matter of practice,

How do you decide right from wrong on a controversial church teaching? . . . How do you determine that now is the time for you to stay when a divisive issue comes up in the church community, or when the line has been breached, and your understanding of truth requires you to leave on principle?

In his southern context, the question of race (and Jim Crow) lurk right below the surface, if that. And then there is a second, not-quite-the-same question, one certainly more global in nature:

We are so accustomed in our culture to not applying reason to religious experience, to only thinking of it in terms of emotional resonance, that to draw those lines seems somehow, well, un-Christian to many. How any religion survives the loss of a sense of the need for orthodoxy, I don’t know.

Both questions are rather protestant in nature, the former being the classic practice flowing from conviction (typically biblical). The latter one would appear to imagine the existence of a common orthodoxy, expressed across very diverse traditions. A fundamentalism, if you will (we differ but we all believe the same core truths). A more honest approach may be to acknowledge that what the Eastern church means by “orthodoxy” is not the same as what Rome means, let alone what an Evangelical may believe. This would be a functional definition of orthodoxy rather than a specifically theological one.

Of course, Dreher could be thinking of the more specific and normative meaning of orthodoxy as that practiced by the Eastern church (aka the Orthodox Church).

As to the relationship of orthodoxy and community, the relationship is surely dialectic. Orthodoxy explains what the community is about, it interprets the historical experience with God. The shape of the community  expresses some convictional norm, an orthodoxy at least of culture if not of theology/ideology. These convictions may be expressed explicitly in statements, and more often or in parallel, by narratives — the stories we tell about where we have come and how we got here.

In similar fashion, the practice of the community reflects or exegetes the convictions of the community. Hence the charges of dead orthodoxy or of hypocrisy when the practice of community appears at variance with the statements of formal orthodoxy or belief. What we state we believe exists as a hypothesis to be demonstrated in how we live. Practice and conviction walk together.

Where are they anyway?

With the Supreme Court decision, same-sex marriage is rapidly institutionalizing, at least in Blue America. The shift has not only dismayed traditional and religious conservatives, but challenged them as to how they should response, and particularly, how exemptions might be carved out.  Rachel Zoll at AP captures the current state of affairs well.

While commending her report, Terry Mattingly at Get Religion asks an interesting question,

Where are the views of religious liberals in this story? Where are the leaders of the denominations that actively favor same-sex marriage and what they view as the modernization of both ancient religious doctrines and the nation’s approach to the First Amendment? This is not, trust me, just a debate between religious people and secular people.

So the camp of the “orthodox” made it into this story. Where are the believers in the camp of the “progressives”? What are they saying about these religious-liberty cases?

Perhaps the simplest answer is that while religious liberals may have an opinion they are not speaking out. There’s little to report because there’s little actually being said. This is in contrast to the last moment in the culture war turning on the same theme of religious liberty, that of contraception. Then, leaders in the mainline did speak out.

By contrast, in the campaign for same sex marriage in New York, the religious left was not part of the reported lobbying. Where the religious community has come together to lobby for same sex marriage in Massachusetts or Illinois it has been through the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry, a largely Unitarian-Universalist led group.

The silence is notable: where are they? After all from internal battles in denominations, there are certainly any number of articulate voices on the pro- side. Shouldn’t we hear their view? This would be Mattingly’s view:

Some on the religious left SUPPORT the changes and have political and doctrinal reasons for doing so. The moral left is NOT all secular.

The silence however, probably lies elsewhere, away from an uncurious reporter. Two reasons suggest themselves.

First, there is the nature of the actual political battles. Much of the recent political heat has been around the question of exemptions. As Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Committee, expressed it

same-sex couples should not, without very good reason, be allowed to force dissenting religious organizations to recognize or facilitate their marriages.

In terms of the conflict, “facilitation” is seen as encompassing a variety of services (photography, bakery, even a bed and breakfast). Behind the conflicts is the insistence on an individual’s personal conviction.  Theologically, it is grounded in a mild Calvinist understanding of the whole of life being religious — thus, even the civic arena, especially the civic arena can become a center for conflict. This viewpoint has also led to the extension of potential religious exemptions into previously neutral settings, e.g. the notion that a for-profit corporation may have a legitimate religious viewpoint. Given the religious liberals’ more communitarian focus and their role (still) as custodians of the establishment, these themes make the religious conservatives concerns less palatable.

Of course, the frank trafficking in fear by some on the Right also serves to delegitimize  conservative concerns. But there’s more than the usual politics at work here. The conservative push bumps into a second, far more significant issue: civil rights.

Within the religious left, gay rights are generally seen as an extension of civil rights, a natural outworking flowing from the same biblical injunctions as to the treatment of the neighbor. As a moral principle, it is an application, derivative of a broader issue. That derivative nature as much as anything reduces the moral valence of the objections. The issues are not central to the identity of the religious left.

The history with the civil rights movement adds another layer of reluctance. The exemptions that are sought in the name of “religious liberty” are  the very sort of practices with accommodations that the church had fought to overturn during the civil rights era.

Finally, it would be a mistake on the Right to think that the religious left is necessarily indifferent to religious liberty. If anything, it is this centrist tendency in the mainline that offers the real hope for pragmatic accommodation, or support should the worst fears begin to be realized.

 

What do we take from the past?

Beer boxHank Ottens at the Banner pens an interesting, prophetic story about his dad, one of those immigrant souls who worked the farm but kept an active mind and prized his orthodoxy. Cleaning out his father’s estate, he comes across “the ark:” books by Bavinck and his father’s collection of sermons on the various themes of orthodoxy.

What to do?

He looks, reads, considers, then gets coffee. Church today is not much like that of his father’s post-war era (or his father’s defense of orthodoxy in retirement).

The brief coffee klatch gets us talking about the new “normal” in church life: praise teams, women clergy, seeker-friendly services, interfaith dialogue, acceptance of divorced and gay members. We put down our coffee cups and get down to business. The ark has become a beer box with relics of a bygone era.

Books and tapes are consigned to the curb. And at the end Ottens wonders about all this with more than a little ambivalence:

Are these reflections on the means of grace, the Heidelberg Catechism and pious living, no more important than a broken-down hobby horse or a six-pack of empties? Do those old sermon tapes at least deserve a respectful place in a preacher’s bookcase?

Well, theses certainly are reflections of grace, but appropriate for a preacher’s bookcase? Ah, no. The grace belongs to his family. In very human terms, these belong on his bookcase. The hand that pens the sermon title was the same hand that ran the farm and first took Otten’s small hand as he learned to walk. Our spirituality is not different from the rest of our lives. Some items we keep because of their testimony to a faithfulness then that has made a debtor now. Active remembrance can keep us.

This however, is not the only story available, that of an old immigrant orthodoxy thrown away. There is the story of faithfulness:  what does one do with one’s life? This was a retirement spent in keeping the mind alive, a retirement spent in caring for others, a retirement spent in a pursuit of godliness; it is  the shape of that fidelity as much as its content that is remarkable and worthy of marking.

Me? I would have kept the tapes if only as a reminder that there is more to life than travel and gardening.

And that’s the truth

How do we know if something is true?

One of the sources for Truth has been “the plain teaching of Scripture”  — a common term in the circle I run in. The other day, John Suk penned some thoughts on that notion (actually a rather lengthy post). the topic is actually rather slippery, since it moves from the rhetoric used in controversies, to the theological stance of the  Reformation (aka perspicuity), and from there to theology of revelation.

Oh my.

In contemporary terms, perhaps the best term is that of clarity. Couldn’t God have been more clear, wonders Suk

God, for example, could have (as Buechner once imagined in a nice sermon) rearranged the stars to say that “I exist,” or “Jesus saves.” Or used a writing style more akin to Berkof or Plantinga than Isaiah or Paul. But if scripture is the best God can do when it comes to being clear, or perspicuous, I’m disappointed.

Perhaps this clarity business is a misreading, a going off track. After all, there’s a long-standing tradition (back to Benedict) of reading/listening to Scripture to meet God. At its basic theological sense, clarity needs to be connected to kerygma : the text is validated by the encounter, by the message. That seems to be a continuing process, time-tested, if you will.

From this perspective, the plain teaching of Scripture is closely associated with the dis-intermediation of Bible reading: it does an end-run on authority. In doing so, it creates a space for a counter reading of the Tradition; from the individual side, the plain meaning of the Scriptures is subversive — one reason why the Belgic Confession speaks of  “the detestable Anabaptists.”

This aspect of the notion poses an ironic counterpoint to the theological rhetoric of the “plain meaning of Scripture”. In present-day North America the term is used generally to privilege some position, silencing debate, or otherwise asserting the authority of the speaker (who can be a bigger source than God, right?). This claim to “plain meaning” has a further traction within the Anglo-American traditions of plain speech v Latinate speech; and especially the popular icons of the plain spoken western hero as a truth teller. We give a lot of credence to those plain speakers — look at the imagery for George W Bush.

Meanwhile, the plain meaning, spoken by the Spirit to the faithful believer’s heart continues to do its subversive work, educating that reader to such goods as love, hospitality, mercy and justice.

Holy Innocents

Today is the Commemoration of Holy Innocents, an odd sort of event, sandwiched between Christmas and the New Year. Almost sure to be forgotten.

And there’s truth to that. Nominally, the date refers to the massacre of young boys by King Herod recorded in Matt. 2:13-18 — a way to stop the salvation history unfolding outside of his control: the price of this control is to be the suffering of innocents. But then again, do we need another day to tell us what we already know about Power or Force?  Rather Holy Innocents asks us to look in a different direction, toward the themes of childhood and justice. And for Evangelicals those themes come together a little later in January, on Life Sunday(Jan 20) and the Martin Luther King commemoration (Jan 21) — Holy Innocents by another name.

That January juxtaposition like Holy Innocents today asks for a better ethical vision. It is easy to overlook the ways that we rob children of their innocence. It’s not just the massacres (or abortion), though there are more than enough, but it is also the acts of continuing of injustice, from the child soldier to the exploitation of children in the workplace. All over. Holy Innocents can seem sentimental or perhaps narrow, but it is finally about our obligations to each other and our opportunity to be a shelter, to give justice room in our poor manger.

Faith in the military

Paul VanderKlay picked up on an interesting essay by Frank Bruni in  the New York Times. Does religion and specifically, Evangelical  Christianity, play too big a role in the military and generally in civic life? Clearly for Bruni, the answer is yes. He desires a God-free space, an American laicite . Whatever our love for things French or for simply the NYT, this is nonetheless an awkward issue for Calvinists who believe that all life belongs to God. But the underlying issue is important, particularly as it applies to the military.

When Blake Page, a fourth-year cadet at West Point packed his bags and left, less than six months shy of graduation, in protest of what he portrayed as a bullying, discriminatory religiousness at the military academy, we have a problem. An Evangelical problem.

To extent that they form a distinct social group within a military, this is a point of caution. Indeed, in one sense, it is entirely natural: the Evangelical sub-culture is among the most disposed to the military, to sending its sons and daughters to serve. So they naturally compose a disproportionate portion of the service. And this is actually a spiritual as much as a political problem. To serve, one must die to self, to the presumptions of one’s own culture.

There is also a civic danger, as well, that of mistaking the particular for the common good.

The framing of military duty by pre-existing social identities is not only a threat to individuals serving but ultimately to civil society, as well. At least civil society that aspires to be broadly democratic.

 

Christian nation? What could go wrong?

Part of a continuing discussion on a video about America as Christian nation, Paul VanderKlay writes

There isn’t any question that the US is inextricably linked to Christian culture in the west and the development of political thought that formed the US has heavy Christian influence. It is also the case that the US was deeply impacted by the Great Awakenings.

The problem with the Christian nation meme is not that of culture, but of priestcraft. Some one must go out and determine the nature of “christian” and so of the correct understanding of the phrase “Christian Nation.” Who does the interpreting makes all the difference. Even in the court case, the term Christianity was understood in a rather watered down form, viz. what appeals to all men of reason (so likely including the Unitarians). It’s kept loose so as to not obligate any one denomination. Now if we want to go beyond that vague civil religious we must necessarily have a Christian interpreter to properly determine the bounds of this “Christianity”. Rather obviously, that cannot be secular courts. So to make the idea work one needs something approximately like a set of Christian experts (a Sanhedrin? mullahs?) perhaps, whose determination sets the boundary for the nation.

In short, if you want a Christianity that is more than watered down congregationalism, you end up with installing something like a national church. And given the religious census, any appeal to a Christian nation tradition pretty soon ends up at Rome and not at the Baptist church at the crossroads.

Since we don’t know which Christian tradition ought to be normative, the founders were right to adopt a neutrality, a vagueness about the actual religious meaning of “Christian.” Let the denominational ideas duke it out and keep them out of the government.

And of course, by the court standard President Obama is eminently a Christian.  And if you twist doctrine enough, so too, is that Mormon fellow.