January 28, 2014

What Do We Stand For?


Text: I Corinthians 1:18: “For the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Editor's note, February 3, 2014: Simon Critchley has posted an essay at this link recalling an argument very similar to the thrust of the below offered by Jacob Bronowski in his 1973 BBC Television series The Ascent of Man.

Over the next three Sundays I want to use the opportunity of this pulpit to reflect together on some questions that I think we need to consider, and for which we need to have answers. I believe we do have answers; and I think the answers we have to offer are not just distinctive to us, but that they have a kind of critical importance. I would go so far as to say that I think we are in a critical moment in our life together as civil society, and that in that moment has brought with us a new urgency for us to make very clear just what it is we stand for—as Christians, yes, but as Christians who are trying to carry forward the particular understanding of the Christian faith that arose out of the historic circumstances of the English Reformation, and that has been amplified and enriched by the contributions of people all over the world who have been drawn to this particular expression of the Christian idea.

To do this I want to start in what may seem like a strange place. Earlier this week the newly elected Attorney General of Commonwealth of Virginia, Mark Herring, made an important announcement. In 2006, the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia approved an amendment to their state constitution that defines marriage as exclusively an arrangement between one man and one woman and prohibits the creation of any other category with privileges equal to those that come from marriage.

Perhaps not surprisingly, that has now been challenged in the Federal courts, and the Commonwealth of Virginia will soon be called upon to defend the language in its own constitution, by amendment, in that forum. And the newly elected attorney general of the Commonwealth of Virginia has announced this week that he will not defend the law, because he believes it is, on its face, contrary to the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

So far I am talking about politics and not religion. But in the coverage of Attorney General Herring’s announcement, needless to say there has emerged a kind of subtext of religion. I can’t to better than to share with you fourteen seconds of a story broadcast earlier this week on National Public Radio:

[clip from NPR broadcast]

I wonder what you think of this. We could talk about it sometime. But my purpose in sharing this here is to use it as a way of helping us to understand what we stand for by asking why it is what this woman has to say could not possibly be consistent with the idea of the Christian faith that we have received, and that we proclaim.

First, let’s just clear up some basic facts. There is absolutely no place in the sayings of Jesus as we have them in the Gospels in which Jesus speaks to the question of who should be married to whom. Jesus has some pretty pointed things to say about divorce, and about fidelity; but he says absolutely nothing either against or for the idea of same-sex marriage. So someone has done this woman a great disservice in teaching her that this is something the “Lord says.”

But that actually isn’t what makes this a view of Christianity at right angles to our own. Let me be clear about what I mean. It’s not because this woman opposes the idea that gay people should have access to marriage that we understand the faith differently. It’s not that she is opposed to gay marriage and Episcopalians are in favor of gay marriage.

A lot of Episcopalians would have that opinion, I’m sure, but that actually isn’t the important point.

What makes this woman’s stance something very different from our own is that she is expressing something she firmly believes is something called the “Christian view” on the question. She believes, I credit her with believing sincerely, that there is something clear and unambiguous called the “Christian view” on a whole variety of specific questions that take up space in our public debates; on gay marriage and social welfare and income inequality and Federal Reserve’s bond-buying program.

I am not sure she would have that same kind of certainty on things that really matter. I wonder what she thinks might be the “Christian view” on matters of actual Christian doctrine? On the question of whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father only, or from the Father and the Son? On whether the Trinity is relational or substantial, or both? On what constitutes a sacrament, and how many of them the church has been equipped with?

My guess is that the woman whose views were heard in this interview, and the vast majority of people who would agree with her, have very certain views on what the “Christian position” might be on a whole range of mundane matters in the realm of politics, but little idea and less care for a whole range of questions that still lie at the heart of Christian doctrine.

Here is what we have as our own. We are the twenty-first century children of a people who spent decades and centuries fighting over matters of the Christian faith—not questions of politics, but questions more like how authority should work in the church, and what exactly is it that happens on the altar when we celebrate the Eucharist, and what is the nature of the Bible’s authority. Our ancestors in the faith were deeply, bitterly polarized on these questions, and they fought actual wars over them, in which countless people needlessly died fighting for truths no one could prove.

And what came out of this was a unique kind of Christianity. It was a Christian faith developed by people who realized that those kinds of conflicts could not be resolved by us, exactly because our human nature is imperfect and fallen. It is a faith that was put together with painstaking care by people who came to the hard-won realization that what it means to speak of men and women as children of God in need of grace and redemption is exactly that no one ever has enough clarity about what God’s purposes and plans are to be able to claim that they speak the absolute Christian truth.

Time and time and time again in the record of the Gospels we see Jesus encountering people who live in absolute certainty about their faith, and feel that it is both their right and their duty to make certain others see it the way they do. Without exception Jesus challenges those people, not because what they think is wrong, but because how they think is wrong. For a human creature to have such certainty about things of God is to commit a violation of the commandment against making false idols, and to put frail human reason in the place of the righteous otherness of God. To say it in other words, much, much more humility is demanded of us.

We live in a historical moment in which the general trend of our public discourse is toward a greater and greater degree of polarization, of absolute and uncompromising pronouncement. We are surrounded by demagogues with absolute certainty in the truths of their own pronouncements, from fundamentalist Christians to the scientism of the New Atheism. And let me be clear about this: Some of these people have been within our own church. We have not been without those prepared to outcast and demonize any who would disagree with them on whatever the issue of moment may be to them. And you can find those folks on both sides of just about any issue.

Whenever that happens in our church, we are falling short of our own greatest inheritance. Because the genius of our ancestors was to gain from bitter experience enough courage and enough wisdom to build a church in which people with fundamentally different views on the things that really matter—on questions of the faith—could kneel side-by-side and offer their prayers to the same God who through Jesus Christ forgives all of us our shortcomings and our limited understanding.

That is what we stand for. It is not an easy place to stand, because none of us can ever claim the comfort of proclaiming that we know the Christian position on anything.

Instead we insist that what it means to be human is to fall well short of the wisdom to make any such claim.

Instead we claim nothing more than to be searching for the basic themes of the Christian story, for the hope of a society governed by the law of love and dedicated to the discipline of reconciliation and forgiveness. And we stand for the idea that what it means to live a Christian life is to live in service to those ideals—because they were the things that the Lord talked about, again and again, in the Gospels.

That is what we stand for, and in the world around us our message is more and more urgent exactly because it is less and less understood, less and less possible, in our drift toward mindless polarization.

They will say we are foolish; but as Paul understood, the great majority of people would say the cross was foolishness, because no God worth the name would subject himself to the humiliating ordeal of execution. But the cross is not a moment of defeat, it is an act of love; it is the radical idea that God, Almighty God, becomes all-vulnerable for us, that all of us might finally grasp the limits of our own nature and the need we all share for God’s acts on our behalf. That foolishness is our wisdom, and in that wisdom is not just our hope, but the hope of generations to come. Amen.