The Branch Theory of the Church

From Wikipedia (click image for article)

One of the major contributions the English Reformation made to Christian thought is the “Branch Theory” of the church.  The idea is that there are degrees of unity among Christians, so that not every formal division between groups forces us to label those on one or both sides of the break as un-Christian.  In a blog post last year, The Reverend Mr Jonathan Mitchican, a priest of the Episcopal Church in Pennsylvania, sums up the branch theory quite lucidly.  Mr Mitchican writes:

The issue is not whether Rome, the East, and Anglicans have some secret bond of true catholicity that only the Anglicans seem to be aware of. Rather, it is that what makes a church truly Christian and truly Catholic is not automatically lost even when churches choose to separate from each other. [William] Palmer even makes the point that errors in doctrine, so long as they do not constitute out and out heresy, are not enough to remove a local church from the Catholic whole. “All errors,” he says, “even in matters of faith, are not heretical.”

He goes on to cite the most famous early theologian of Anglicanism, Richard Hooker:

In his Learned Discourse on Justification, Richard Hooker affirms the doctrine that we are saved by Christ alone through faith alone, the doctrine that Martin Luther said was the one which the Church rises or falls on, and he excoriates Rome for teaching a counter message. Nevertheless, when it comes to understanding what the Church is, Hooker took a different tack:

How far Romish heresies may prevail over God’s elect, how many God hath kept from falling into them, how many have been converted from them, is not the question now in hand; for if heaven had not received any one of that coat for these thousand years it may still be true that the doctrine which at this day they do profess doth not directly deny the foundation and so prove them to be no Christian Church…

Quoting from various Reformed sources, Hooker goes on to say that denying the title of church to Rome would be like denying the title of man to a sick man. The existence of error weakens a church but does not turn it into something else entirely any more than having a bad cold might weaken a man but does not kill him. Of course, a disease left untreated can eventually kill, but Hooker sets the bar very high. So long as Rome continues to preach that Jesus is Lord, accept and obey the Scriptures, and celebrate proper Sacraments, she cannot be left for dead.

In this paragraph, Mr Mitchican mentions alternatives to the branch theory:

Several possible options exist. The first is to do what Rome and the Eastern churches have done, to declare that their particular churches are, in fact, the whole Church and that anyone not in communion with them is outside of the Church. On the other extreme is the generic Protestant option, so often employed today under the label “non-denominational,” of suggesting that there is no real division at all, that what matters is solely correct faith and not visible communion, and that the true Church is therefore invisible, not corresponding at all with existing bodies. What Anglican ecclesiology says is that both of these options are inadequate. What we require is a much more dynamic understanding of the Church, one that accounts for the irregularity of the era we live in.

To amplify these remarks, I would quote from rather an old publication of the Church of England, Doctrine in the Church of England: The Report of the Commission on Christian Doctrine Appointed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in 1922 (London and New York: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1957; reprint of the original 1938 edition.)  Where Mr Mitchican says that Rome and the churches of the East “declare that their particular churches are, in fact, the whole Church and that anyone not in communion with them is outside of the Church,” the Commission phrased it rather more precisely:

Since the date of the Great Schism, 1054, the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church have each claimed to be the one Catholic Church, at least in the sense of being the sole authoritative guardian of the apostolic tradition. (page 109)

This statement makes it clear that a theory of the unity of the church must address two closely related, yet quite distinct questions: 1, who is a Christian; 2, what is the church?  Among the great strengths of the branch theory is that it makes it possible to consider these questions separately without dismissing either of them.  For example, a friend of mine was once serving as a minister in a church in an area where many people were Hindu.  The place was usually quite empty, but on Christmas Day the neighbors crowded in. He asked them what brought them.  They told him that they had come to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  “He’s one of our gods,” they cheerfully explained.  Were they Christians?  In a sense, yes.  One of the ways Jesus defines his movement in the Gospels, after all, is that where two or more are gathered in his name, there will he be (Matthew 18:20.)  But this sense hardly tells the whole story. For one thing, Jesus himself gives several other, far more restrictive definitions of who his followers are.  For another, I doubt that many of those gathered in the name of Jesus the avatar of Vishnu would be interested in claiming the title of “Christian” for themselves, and few indeed would be the self-described Christians who were prepared to yield to their authority as interpreters of the Gospel. So, “Christian” they may have been, in some special and severely limited sense of the word, but in no sense would we include them in “the church,” still less expect them to function as “the sole authoritative guardian[s] of the apostolic tradition.”

It is the rootedness in history of the branch theory that makes this distinction clear.  The worship of Vishnu, the identification of such major figures of the Hindu pantheon as Krishna as avatars of Vishnu, and the rest of the ideological and ceremonial system into which Hindu devotees of Vishnu-Jesus fit their beliefs and practices long predate the exposure of India to the story of Jesus and the presence in that country of representatives of “the apostolic tradition.”  This devotion, venerable and admirable as it no doubt is, stands apart from “the church” in a way that groups that were once in communion with the Patriarchs of both Constantinople and Rome do not.  The separation of those groups from each other represent a different challenge to followers of Jesus than do the separation of groups, even groups that revere Jesus, that have never been united under any institutional umbrella.

Doctrine in the Church of England includes two lengthy paragraphs about the unity of the church that I would like to quote in full:

The divisions among Christians, as a result of which Christendom is split up into a number of competing and rival “denominations” and “communions,” are not the least grievous among the scandals that have been mentioned.  There is a long history behind them; and in some cases, at least, there are serious divergences of principle involved, such as must needs make the way to reconciliation neither easy nor obvious.  It is, moreover, to be remembered that the life of the Christian Body is enriched by varieties of emphases and interpretation, and that historically these have been developed in their familiar forms in the several communions which have resulted from the divisions in the Church.  Yet it often happens that in developing one valuable interpretation of the Gospel, a particular communion becomes unduly restricted to this interpretation, while others may fail to receive the benefit as a result of their separation from that communion.  Further, there is a natural tendency to form sectarian loyalties, which make men unappreciative of new ideas arising from outside their communion, and prompt them to defend, out of regard for their founders and heroes of the past, traditions for which the justifying circumstances have disappeared.  Thus any gain due to division is offset by loss to the whole Body and to its parts.  The gain can be secured without loss only through a real combination of unity with liberty.

The term “schism” has historically been used with some fluctuation of meaning.  It should, however, be recognised that “schism” is, in fact, a division within the Christian Body.  That Body is not to be thought of as a single true Church, or group of Churches, with a number of “schismatic” bodies gathered around it, but as a whole which is in a state of division or “schism.”  The various “denominations” may and do differ in the degree in which they approximate either to orthodoxy of doctrine or to fullness of organised life; but, just in so far as their very existence as separate organisations constitutes a real division within Christendom, it becomes true to affirm that if any are is schism, all are in schism, so long as the breaches remain unhealed, and are affected by its consequences, at least in the sense that each in its own degree suffers the loss or defect involved in schism; and this irrespective of the question on which side rests the major responsibility for the schism.

(pages 111-112; emphasis added)

Certainly a theory of ecclesiology which identifies “the Church” with a particular organization that has a headquarters, a table of organization, and a pension fund does place some rather severe restrictions on Christian thinkers who survey the world at large.  I would cite Joseph Ratzinger as one who has made clear his dissatisfaction with the view that his particular church is “in fact, the whole Church and that anyone not in communion with [it] is outside of the Church.”  In his 1960 book The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood, the future Pope Benedict XVI wrote:

This discussion of Christian brotherhood has endeavored to apply what the New Testament says to the world today, even when what it says seems unexpected, even alien, to us.  As I followed up the references, sometimes with surprise, in my mind there arose the question of the “separated brethren,” the popular designation of Christians of differing confessions who thus express, across the gulf of their separation, their common adherence in faith to Jesus Christ, their brother.  Must this formula be discarded because the New Testament restricts brotherhood, in the narrower sense, to those who share one table, united through their common communion, which cannot exist among separated Christians?   But then, what is the relation of these Christians to one another?  Is a non-Catholic Christian, for a Catholic, the “other” brother only in the sense in which an unbaptized person is?  Or does the community of baptism and the confession of the one Lord not, in fact, impart to him a greater share of fellowship?  It is not easy to answer such questions, especially as they have seldom been asked in a sufficiently radical way, for fear of touching wounds that are still open.  And yet it is necessary to ask this, just as truth is necessary for love.

The difficulty in the way of giving an answer is a profound one.  Ultimately it is due to the fact that there is no appropriate category in Catholic thought for the phenomenon of Protestantism today (one could say the same of the relationship to the separated churches of the East.)  It is obvious that the old category of “heresy” is no longer of any value.  Heresy, for Scripture and the early Church, includes the idea of a personal decision against the unity of the Church, and heresy’s characteristic is pertinacia, the obstinacy of him who persists in his own private way.  This, however, cannot be regarded as an appropriate description of the spiritual situation of the Protestant Christian.  In the course of a now centuries-old tradition, Protestantism has made an important contribution to the realization of the Christian faith, fulfilling a positive function in the development of the Christian message and, above all, often giving rise to a sincere and profound faith in the individual non-Catholic Christian, whose separation from the Catholic affirmation has nothing to do with the pertinacia characteristic of heresy.  Perhaps we may here invert an old saying of Saint Augustine’s: that an old schism becomes a heresy.  The very passage of time alters the character of a division, so that an old division is something essentially different from a new one.  Something that was once rightly condemned as heresy cannot later simply become true, but it can gradually develop its own positive ecclesial nature, with which the individual is presented as his church and in which he lives as a believer, not as a heretic.  This organization of one group, however, ultimately has an effect on the whole.  The conclusion is inescapable, then: Protestantism today is something different from heresy in the traditional sense, a phenomenon whose true theological place has not yet been determined.

(from pages 88-89 of the 1993 translation by W. A. Glen-Doepel)

Here we see the future pontiff proposing a theory that works in the opposite way of the branch theory.  The branch theory posits a time when Christian organizations were formally united, and holds that a kind of informal unity can survive formal division.   The Ratzingerian theory does not depend on any particular answer to the historical question of whether two denominations split off from an older, united denomination.  For him, the kind of unity that Anglican divines have described from the days of Hooker to Mr Mitchican and his colleagues today can exist even between groups whose organizational structures do not spring from a common genealogy.

In his career since 1960, Joseph Ratzinger has returned to this theory time and again as an attempt to supply the “appropriate category in Catholic thought” which was still missing in that year.  He has done this both in his own writing, and in his influence on others.  We can find the signs of this theory in Pope John Paul II’s letter, Ut Unum Sintissued when Joseph Ratzinger was Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, especially in the famous paragraphs about relations between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church (paragraphs 50-70, including the line “The Church must breathe with both lungs!” in paragraph 54,) and in John Paul’s comments about the Lutherans in paragraph 72.  And paragraph 87 is pretty nearly a paraphrase of the quote from The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood above:

87. Along the way that leads to full unity, ecumenical dialogue works to awaken a reciprocal fraternal assistance, whereby Communities strive to give in mutual exchange what each one needs in order to grow towards definitive fullness in accordance with God’s plan (cf. Eph 4:11-13). I have said how we are aware, as the Catholic Church, that we have received much from the witness borne by other Churches and Ecclesial Communities to certain common Christian values, from their study of those values, and even from the way in which they have emphasized and experienced them. Among the achievements of the last thirty years, this reciprocal fraternal influence has had an important place. At the stage which we have now reached, this process of mutual enrichment must be taken seriously into account. Based on the communion which already exists as a result of the ecclesial elements present in the Christian communities, this process will certainly be a force impelling towards full and visible communion, the desired goal of the journey we are making. Here we have the ecumenical expression of the Gospel law of sharing. This leads me to state once more: “We must take every care to meet the legitimate desires and expectations of our Christian brethren, coming to know their way of thinking and their sensibilities … The talents of each must be developed for the utility and the advantage of all”.

Here again, we see the idea that Christian groups, separated from the mainstream, can grow beyond that separation, eventually to merge into a new mainstream.

As Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger himself spoke in 2011 to Lutheran leaders at Martin Luther’s old monastery in Erfurt.    Praising Luther’s theological prowess and the depth of his commitment to Christ, the pontiff went on to imply that today’s Lutherans face the same challenge that Roman Catholics faced in 1517:

The geography of Christianity has changed dramatically in recent times, and is in the process of changing further. Faced with a new form of Christianity, which is spreading with overpowering missionary dynamism, sometimes in frightening ways, the mainstream Christian denominations often seem at a loss. This is a form of Christianity with little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content, and with little stability. This worldwide phenomenon poses a question to us all: what is this new form of Christianity saying to us, for better and for worse? In any event, it raises afresh the question about what has enduring validity and what can or must be changed – the question of our fundamental faith choice.

Here Pope Benedict shows that he has reached the same conclusion as did the Church of England’s 1922 Commission.  Recall their words, quoted above: “there is a natural tendency to form sectarian loyalties, which make men unappreciative of new ideas arising from outside their communion, and prompt them to defend, out of regard for their founders and heroes of the past, traditions for which the justifying circumstances have disappeared.”  In this passage and elsewhere, Pope Benedict has suggested that the occasional inability of the Church’s human ministers to distinguish between the indispensable heart of the Christian mission and the incidental forms that mission may take from time to time was responsible for the crises that issued in the Protestant Reformation.  Here, he suggests that the same weakness which prevented Rome responding as it may have done to the crises of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries may today be preventing the Roman Catholic and Lutheran hierarchies from recognizing and fully meeting a similar challenge from the global South.  It is precisely the same chronological depth and richness of tradition that has, in Benedict’s view, ennobled Lutheranism that may also have blinded it to the need to cast aside many of the most treasured inheritances in answer to Christ’s call to enter a new world radically different from the ones in which those legacies were crafted.

I am in no position to judge between the Anglican theory and the Ratzingerian theory.  I can express only my personal preferences.  These incline me somewhat toward the Anglicans.   I suspect that Pope Benedict falls between the two stools Mr Mitchican describes.  Certainly he is in no danger of reaching the logical endpoint of the extreme Protestant rejection of historical relations among organized groups as the basis of church unity, that “what matters is solely correct faith and not visible communion, and that the true Church is therefore invisible, not corresponding at all with existing bodies,” since his theory is embedded within a defense of a particular, actually existing Christian denomination as the best venue for the formation and expression of the human person.  That is a point in his favor; if all that unites Christians is “correct faith,” and faith is a matter, not of social action, but of assent to and defense of particular abstract propositions, then the proper life for a human being is that of an internet comment box warriors, sitting alone, prepared to take all to task if they express incorrect ideas.  A path that leads to such a life can hardly be one worth traveling.

However, to the extent that his theory does not draw a distinction between the two questions “Who is a Christian?” and “What is the Church?,” Benedict cannot lead one entirely clear either of that danger or of the opposite danger, the denial that groups with which one is not in full communion are not at all Christian and the refusal to learn anything from them about the meaning of the Gospel and the mission of the Church.  For him, the Church is and can only be what the 1922 Commission explicitly said in the quote above it was not, “a single true Church, or group of Churches, with a number of “schismatic” bodies gathered around it,” since it is that “single true Church” that, however corrupted it may from time to time be by the stupidity or wickedness of its ministers, however richly it may from time to time be instructed by the witness of those outside its communion, must ultimately remain “the sole authoritative guardian of the apostolic tradition.”  The difference between Roman Catholics on the one hand and Protestants or Orthodox on the other, therefore, varies only in degree from the difference between Roman Catholics and Hindus who pay homage to Vishnu-Jesus.  If Benedict concedes that a non-Roman Catholic can be a full-fledged Christian, therefore, he is conceding that Christians can be fully formed altogether outside the influence of the historic Church.  In that case, it is difficult to see how he could explain why the worship of Vishnu-Jesus should not be classified as one of the schismatic bodies gathered around the communion of which he claims for eight years to have been the earthly head, unless by assigning to the creeds a significance that would throw us back into the world of the combox warrior.

Let us consider how Christian groups have justified claims to be “the sole authoritative guardians of the apostolic tradition.”  Many groups have done what Rome does, what Eastern Orthodoxy does, what Oriental Orthodoxy does, and claim that their hierarchies represent an unbroken succession dating back to Jesus and the Apostles, so that they are and have always been The Church.  Others claim, as William Penn claimed of his fellow Quakers, to be the embodiment of “Primitive Christianity revived,” the restoration of the original church as presented in Scripture.  These are the “Restorationists” of the chart at the top of this post.  A few groups, such as the Mormons and the Christian Scientists, claim to have received new revelations that are to be added to Scripture, and base their claim to authority on their status as recipients of these revelations.

The new revelations crowd include some of the nicest people I’ve ever met; honestly, I’ve never had an unpleasant exchange with a Mormon, and I’ve met hundreds of them.  But their founding premises are such that formal union between them and other Christian groups must surely be a most distant prospect.  Perhaps the nearest approach to such union is to be found in the Community of Christ, originally the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints, which seems to be well on its way to becoming a liberal mainstream Protestant denomination.  In the course of that reinvention, the Community of Christ has deemphasized all of its Mormon distinctives. It still affirms that the Book of Mormon and the Latter Day Saints’ Doctrine and Covenants are two of the “three books of Scripture,” but places the other of these three, the Bible, above them and no longer mandates the use of the Mormon writings in worship or as tests of membership.  Their name change marked a similar movement.  It may well happen that the Community of Christ will sooner or later enter into some kind of formal union with a Protestant denomination, but if it does, that will likely be because that Protestant denomination is convinced that the Community of Christ has severed all its ties to its Mormon origins.

The Restorationists have had more success in building ecumenical bridges, but they too have had to moderate their founding principles in order to do so.  If two distinct movements build themselves on the belief that they are accurate recreations of the church Christ intended to found, then a merger between them can only represent a concession that at least one of them has been wrong all along.  That seems like rather a steep hurdle in the way of formal union, though perhaps not a major obstacle practical cooperation.

That leaves the Traditionalists as the best hope for Christian unity.  And, in my not especially well-informed opinion, it seems that the branch theory is the best starting point for any project that would turn that hope into reality.

What started me thinking about all of this was a humorous little exchange I participated in yesterday on Twitter.  Nathaniel Torrey tweeted this:

(A spoof of TV’s The Big Bang Theory, in case you didn’t recognize the reference.)

In response to an inquiry from Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, Mr Torrey gave an example of an episode:

This prompted my reply:

Micah Meadowcroft, a student at conservative bastion Hillsdale College, apparently found in the reference to sexual minorities an issue that might chop some branches off the tree of Christendom; he expressed this in the most effective possible way, through a link to a video produced a couple of decades before he was born:

 

 

 

 

 

 

The unliked and uninjured

Earlier this week, Slate‘s Mark Joseph Stern wrote a piece asking incredulously “Do Anti-Gay Christians Really Face Employment Discrimination?”  Mr Stern cites blog posts by Princeton Professor Robert George and The American Conservatives always interesting, often apoplectic blogger Rod Dreher about a survey in which investment bank JP Morgan-Chase recently inquired into its employees positions with regard to the rights of sexual minorities.  Finding the survey a perfectly routine bit of corporate boilerplate, Mr Stern shows impatience with the concerns that Professor George and Mr Dreher voice.  “All of this is extravagantly silly, and I respect Dreher and George’s intellects too much to believe that they’re actually taking it seriously,” he writes.

I would agree that Professor George, Mr Dreher, and their fellows have made many hyperbolic statements regarding this and similar matters.  At the same time, I do think they are onto something.  I would refer to an item the retired Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, the Right Reverend Mr V. Gene Robinsonposted on The Daily Beast several months ago.  The Rt. Rev. Mr R, himself the first openly gay person consecrated a bishop in a traditional denomination, denied that anti-gay Christians in the USA are the targets of anything that should be called “persecution.”  At the same time he did acknowledge that they are coming to be a minority, not only numerically, but in the sense that they bear a stigma which sets them apart from the mainstream:

Here’s what victimization looks like: every day, especially in some places, LGBT people face the real possibility of violence because of their orientation or gender identity. Young people jump off bridges or hang themselves on playground swing sets because of the bullying and discrimination they face. In 29 states, one can be fired from one’s job simply for being gay, with no recourse to the courts. In most places, we cannot legally marry the one we love. Some of us have been kicked out of the house when we come out to our parents, and many young LGBT people find themselves homeless and on the streets because of the attitudes of their religious parents toward their LGBT children. And did I mention the everyday threat of violence?

Compare that to the very painful realization that one’s view of something like homosexuality is in the minority after countless centuries of being in the majority. It may feel like victimization to hang a shingle out to sell something or provide some service to the public, only to find that the “public” includes people one disagrees with or finds immoral in some way. It may feel like it has happened practically overnight, when it has actually been changing over a period of decades. Being pressed to conform to such a change in majority opinion must feel like victimization. But as a society, we would do well to distinguish between real victimization and the also-very-real discouragement felt by those who now find themselves in the minority.

I do not mean to brush aside as inconsequential the feelings of those who find themselves in the minority, whether it be around the topic of gender, race, or sexual orientation. But I do mean to question characterizing such feelings as discrimination, violation of religious freedom, and victimization. It’s time we called out our religious brothers and sisters for misunderstanding their recently-acquired status as members of a shrinking minority as victims.

I would amplify the good bishop’s remarks about “the feelings of those who find themselves in the minority.”  I would say that “feelings” is perhaps an unfortunate choice of words here, being as it is a word that often figures in non-apology apologies such as “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings,” which is a polite way of saying “I wish you hadn’t become upset when I was doing what any sensible person would regard as that right thing, you crybaby.”  The beliefs that motivate people who disapprove of homosexuality may be wrong; I am quite sure they are wrong, as a matter of fact, though I am chastened by Mr Robinson’s* own willingness to suspend final judgment on the theological ins and outs of the issue.  However, it is hardly reasonable to expect the members of this new minority group not to share the experience of every established minority group, who are from time to time frustrated when the image of the world that is presented to them in every movie, every book, every TV show, every presidential address, every classroom, every other place where the voice of The Mainstream is heard, is so much at odds with what they have seen and heard and felt in their own lives, from their own point of view, that it begins to seem as if they have been transported to a parallel universe.

I believe Mr Robinson would be quick to agree with this.  I heard him make a speech a few years ago in which he told an audience made up primarily of same-sexers that “we will never be anything other than a small minority group in society at large, no matter how large a majority we may form in this room at this moment.”  He went on to talk about the challenges inherent in minority status, especially the sense of not being heard that comes when an element so central to personal identity as one’s sexuality takes a form that is basically alien to most of the people one meets on a daily basis.  So when he tells his opponents that their new status as members of an unpopular minority does not by itself mean that they are victims of injustice, he is not trivializing their experiences or concerns.  Rather, he is suggesting that in the future he and they will have something in common.  Anti-gay Christians may never again be anything other than a small minority group in society at large, no matter how large a majority they may form in their own worship spaces.  And they can no longer expect culture high and low to be dominated by a worldview in which male and female are categories created by God and inscribed by God with specific meanings, meanings that include a concept of complementarity that exhausts the legitimate purposes of sexual activity.  Nor can they even expect the average person to have the vaguest knowledge of what their views are, or to be at all interested in learning about them.  They can hardly be faulted for considering this an unattractive prospect, yet it is no different from what any other minority group experiences.  On Mr Robinson’s account, the reduced visibility and inadvertent exclusions that come with minority status do not by themselves constitute unjust discrimination.

I don’t want to put words in Mr Robinson’s mouth; I’m sure he would be the first to concede that there is such a thing as institutional discrimination, and that injustices no one in the majority intends to commit or even knows are happening can at times wreak horrific consequences in the lives of the minority.  And while Mr Stern is blithely confident that laws against religious discrimination will give anti-gay Christians all the protection they need against any mistreatment they may suffer in the future, Mr Dreher’s American Conservative colleague Samuel Goldman** links to a recent article raising the question of whether “religious freedom” is even a coherent category in our current legal system.   So I see more grounds to the fears of this new minority than does Mr Stern.  I cannot be of much help to them; in the unlikely event that anti-gay Christians were to ask me how they could be sure of receiving fair treatment in a strongly pro-gay America, my suggestion would be that they abandon their false beliefs and join the rest of us in affirming the diversity of sexual expression in today’s world.  I’m sure that would be about as pointless as a Christian telling Muslims that if they don’t want to be smeared by association with terrorists, all they have to do is to be baptized.

*To avoid confusion, let me explain: The customary form in which the names of Anglican clergy are presented is “[Ecclesiastical Honorific] [Courtesy Title] [Proper Name]” at first reference, and “[Courtesy Title] [Proper Name]” at subsequent references.  That’s why I introduced Mr Robinson as “the Right Reverend Mr Robinson,” then switched to plain “Mr Robinson.”  My wife works for the Episcopal Church, and I occasionally read the novels of Anthony Trollope, so I’m aware of all these things.

**Like Mr Dreher, Mr Goldman is always interesting.  Unlike him, he is never apoplectic.

10 Things I Don’t Know About Christianity

The other day, a commenter on Alison Bechdel’s website called my attention to this list by Jim Rigby, as it appeared on Patheos:

I thanked that commenter, the redoubtable “NLC,” and added this remark:

Hanging out with mellow progressives like Episcopalians and Quakers it’s tempting to forget or understate the sheer bloody-mindedness that so often thrives under the sign of the cross.

As for the focus of the “Ten Things” on the Bible, one thing I think the Bible makes crystal clear about homosexuality is that homosexuality wasn’t a particularly controversial topic when the Bible was taking shape. The Bible is hundreds and hundreds of pages long, and the antigay crowd can find only six brief verses in the whole thing that support their position at all explicitly.

What’s more, most of those six verses are actually about something else, and none of them contemplate anything like the same-sex relationships that exist in today’s world.

Sure, the tone of the six snippets make it clear that same-sex sex was not well-regarded in those days, and neither the law nor the prophets nor anything in the Christian scriptures pushes back against that hostility. But so what? None of those writings push back against slavery or any of a number of other institutions familiar in those centuries, but Christians nowadays seem confident that they have disassociated their religion from those things, and in fact often propose it as a bulwark against them. I fully expect the Christians of the 22nd century to be united in a smug sense of superiority over the homophobes of that day, just as their counterparts now are quick to cite the Christian Abolitionists of the 19th century.

The more I think about it, the more I find to disagree with in the “10 Things.”  For instance: (more…)

Pythagoras Today

Slate recently reran a New Scientist piece about the similarities between mathematical patterns musicologists use and mathematical patterns  researchers to explore other fields.  Pythagoras did something similar two and a half millennia ago, and built a whole religion around it.  The Pythagorean cult was apparently still up and running in 1959, that’s when no less a celebrity than Donald Duck was initiated into Pythagoreanism:

 

A few remarks about church-going

I’ve mentioned here that Mrs Acilius and I can often be found among nearby God-bothering societies, notably the Quaker meeting of which she is a member and an Episcopal parish in which we are also active.  Recently, I shared with the readers of some other blogs this fact and a partial explanation for it.

In response to a post by Rod Dreher about an unsightly and not very obviously Christian work of art placed prominently outside an Episcopal cathedral, I wrote the following:

“You know it’s a rockin’ Episcopalian argument when somebody uses the word “ghastly.” That’s like chair-throwing in any other fight.”

One recent Sunday, I was at coffee hour in the parish hall at an Episcopal church whose doors I darken on a fairly regular basis. I happened to be sitting next to a stack of books that were being reshelved. One of the books was the Book of Occasional Services. A couple of parishioners noticed it. “Does that have an Episcopalian exorcism rite?” Another replied, “Free this soul of bad taste!” Everyone laughed.

The seriousness with which they take aesthetics and lightness with which they take themselves are among the things that keep drawing me to the Episcopalians, and to Anglicans generally. Not only do I find that combination attractive in itself, but I think it is a vital corrective to a culture that relentlessly encourages the opposite traits, militantly rejecting any idea that beauty is a real thing that makes demands on us while it rewards and glorifies the weightiest self-importance and the most morbid self-absorption. The Episcopalians are in a position to make a unique contribution to breaking the spell these vices have cast on us, and so I very much hope they thrive.

That said, when I mention the Episcopal Church to people not affiliated with it the single most common response is the question, “Is that still around?” So perhaps it will take some time for their particular share of the Light to overcome the darkness around us.

I went on at even greater length in responding to a post by Alastair J. Roberts called “Hear Me Out: On Sitting Through Sermons.”  While, as a Calvinist, Mr Roberts sees the chief purpose of preaching as instruction in correct doctrine, he also puts considerable emphasis on the value of the physical act of sitting still and listening while another person speaks at length, even when relatively little of the content of that speech stays in the memory of the hearer.  This led me to expound on the role of sermons in the religious gatherings Mrs Acilius and I most regularly attend:

Very interesting. On most Sunday mornings, my wife and I attend two Christian gatherings. At 8 AM, we go to an Anglican service. Then at 11, we go to the Quakers. Different as they are, the two traditions have similar views of the proper function of sermons.

The Anglicans tend to believe that the role of the sermon, like that of each of the other prescribed parts of the liturgy, is to sweep away the distractions that might be buzzing about in one’s mind when one enters the worship space. So the penitential elements sweep away, first, the sinful preoccupations that may have taken root in our minds, then the idle guilt in which we dwell on the fact that we have been in the grips of those preoccupations. The lessons and the creed sweep away any impulse to enter theological or political disputes, reminding us as they do that we not only agree on a great deal, but that whatever disagreements do divide us have been around so long that it is unlikely we will miss anything by taking a pass on any particular opportunity to try to persuade people of the rightness of our views. Hymns and corporate prayers and greetings dramatize the fact that we’re all in this together, sweeping personal resentments aside for the time being. The preacher must have a sense of what is going on with the congregation to know which of these distractions is likely to represent the biggest distraction at any given iteration of the Eucharist and design the sermon to put some extra force behind the broom aimed at it.

Our 11 AM gathering is more of a “Friends Church” than a “Quaker meeting.” They have hymns, accompanied by an organ; a choir, accompanied by a professional pianist; a sermon, delivered by a professional preacher; and other formal practices, all laid out in a printed program and introduced by cues that must be expressed in precisely the correct words. However, the climax of all this formalization is a period of shared listening, in which we sit for ten minutes or so, many times in complete silence, but not infrequently hearing from two or three Friends who feel that the Holy Spirit has entrusted them with a message for us. Quite often this message is something along the lines of, “I forgot to mention it during the announcements, but I brought some cabbages from my garden, please take them home with you.” Be that as it may, each of those liturgical elements found its way into the practice of our branch of Quakerdom as a preparation for that shared silence. As our Anglican friends want to clear their minds to fully experience the direct encounter with Christ they find in the reception of the Eucharist, so our Friends friends want to clear their minds to fully experience the direct encounter with Christ they find “wherever two or more are gathered in [His] name.”

My wife is more of an old-fashioned Quaker than are most in our meeting. For her, the sheer act of sitting still and waiting for the Holy Spirit in a circle of others doing the same is quite enough to achieve the clarity needed for the sacramental experience. If another should speak, or pray, or break into song, that is all the better, but she does not find it necessary. The physical act, as you put it, is sufficient to prepare her for an encounter with Christ.

These two descriptions may seem to depict liturgy as therapy, or perhaps therapy as liturgy.  Certainly in each case the goal is to help people to get themselves out of their own way.  Of all the parts of the liturgy, when liturgy is conceived as preparation for sacrament, the sermon is perhaps the one where the therapeutic is most likely to make itself obvious.  Perhaps this is why sermons so often inspire resentment, because the preacher may stray too far into territory where a psychologist might have a surer touch.  And so rarely does even the most engaged preacher really know what is on the minds of more than a small fraction of her congregation; a sermon perfectly crafted to clear the minds of that fraction may be pointless or even distracting to many others.

Mr Roberts’ post is really quite excellent.  I’d also recommend one of the later comments, from someone called Tapani:

Repetition is the mother of learning. I got an A in A level maths (a long time ago; wouldn’t pass GCSE now, I suspect!)—not because I could draw on this particular lesson or that for the answers, but because I had acquired the necessary knowledge, skills and attitudes over 14 years of mathematical education. I can recall just about one specific lesson (first term of lower sixth), and that because we were being something important (differentiation, from first principles) which I failed to grasp in the lesson and was, therefore, very frustrated. And yet I got that A.

I do wonder how much of this emphasis on memorability is a by-product, or at least sister, of the experiential turn in Christianity. We seek experiences, feelings, in worship in general, so we also seek experiences (feelings, or thoughts to hang on to) in sermons too. And if we don’t get those experiences but merely individual moments of life-long Christian formation, we are dissatisfied.

The phrase “individual moments of life-long Christian formation”  strikes me as a remarkably concise statement of a distinctly Protestant view of the role of preaching.  Anglicans are Protestants too, of course, even though some of them are strangely reluctant to admit it, and Quakerism originated as a radical reimagining of Anglicanism.   I do think that a tendency to equate cases of instruction in points of doctrine with “moments of life-long Christian formation” is native to Protestantism.  Surely that phrase would more naturally suggest, to a non-Protestant Christian, the experience of the sacraments.  In that sense, the emphasis on encounters with the divine and the aversion to systematic theology that characterize Anglicanism and its offshoots marks a point at which those movements part company with the Reformed and Lutheran traditions, and move toward common ground with the Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches.

Anyway, this post has the noun phrase “church-going” in its title, so here is Philip Larkin reading his poem “Church-Going“:

I am not much of a believer myself; my attitude is not really so different from Larkin’s, when one comes down to it.  I do think it would be a shame if a day were to dawn when even disbelief has finally withered away, when the last, the very last person has sought a church for what it was, and all that remains is a vague sense of “a serious house on serious earth.”  If that day never does come, and if at the end of it all there are still those like my wife and our friends among the Friends and the Anglicans who find renewal and transformation and surpassing truth in such places, I suspect the seeds from which that infinite future will have grown are striking their roots deeper in the hushed moments of sacramental encounter than in the ringing words of the dogmatist.

Merry Kitschmas!

Last year, Mark Shea linked to and reposted this set of pictures of weird nativity sets and other kitschy Christian art.  The title is “The 42 Worst Nativity Sets,” but I’d suggest another title: “A Thousand Kinds of AWESOME.”  Who could possibly resist the Chicken Nativity?

Or the Mermaid Nativity?

Granted, the Zombie Nativity might be a bit too sacrilegious for some:

Though I don’t think it’s as bad as any of the various sets made out of pigmeat, such as the Bacon & Sausage Nativity or the Spam Nativity.  Not only were Jesus and his family Jews who certainly kept kosher, but there’s the additional problem that the standing figures in the Spam Nativity are shaped like penises:

Circumcised penises, I grant you, but it is still disrespectful.

Perhaps the most reverential item included is the least conventional, Sebastian Bergne’s “Colour Nativity.”  I want it!  But only if I can put it on that table, in front of that wall.  Since neither of those things is in my house, I suppose there wouldn’t be much point in actually buying it.

 

 

Worshiping coitus

Sacred art

One of our recurring themes here on Los Thunderlads is the remarkable weakness of arguments against gender-neutral marriage.  The law-courts of the world are full of lawyers advancing ingenious arguments in support of the most ludicrous propositions; wealthy business interests can suborn economists and other social scientists to make very impressive cases for any policy that will increase their profits; sectarians and enthusiasts of all sorts can build formidable intellectual defenses for even their most far-fetched crochets.  Yet the idea that the title of “marriage” should be granted exclusively to heterosexual pairings, a familiar idea throughout human history and one that enjoys the support of many extremely powerful institutions and of solid majorities of public opinion in much of the world today, seems to find no rational backing whatever in contemporary public discourse.  Opponents of gender neutral marriage have noticed this circumstance; I can recommend theologian Alastair J. Roberts’ recent note, “Why Arguments Against Gay Marriage Are Usually Bad.”  Mr Roberts doesn’t convince me that gender-neutral marriage is a bad idea, but he does come up with a number of interesting remarks to make as he goes along his way.

In the last few weeks, I’ve noticed advocates of gender neutral marriage making themselves look almost as silly as their opponents routinely do.  First up was an article in Slate magazine by Mark Joseph Stern, one subtitle of which is “Why do defenders of DOMA and Prop 8 worship coitus?”  Mr Stern reports on legal briefs recently submitted to the US Supreme Court in defense of measures that seek to reserve marriage for heterosexual couples only, briefs in which penis-in-vagina sex is presented as an essential defining characteristic of marriage.  Mr Stern seems incredulous that this is in fact the premise of arguments presented to the US Supreme Court.  “This argument puts gay marriage opponents in an awkward position. For years, they said gays were too libidinous and licentious to create stable marriages. Now, as proponents of gay marriage emphasize love, fidelity, and commitment, the right is fetishizing coitus,” he writes.  He goes on: “In [Professor Robert] George’s primitive understanding, marriage isn’t about love or raising children. It’s about copulation.”

Mr Stern’s piece went up a couple of weeks ago.  Yesterday, Tom Tomorrow reminded me of it.  Click on the image to go to the strip:

I’m not an expert in comparative religion, but it does strike me as rather odd that there might be cultures which do not “fetishize coitus” and grow elaborate institutions around penis-in-vagina sex.  After all, penis-in-vagina isn’t just another arcane sexual practice, but is the act of procreation.  Among animal processes, only eating and death compare to it in the range and gravity of their consequences.   If you’re going to worship any events in nature, it would seem that penis-in-vagina sex would be first on the list.

Now, the institution of marriage in the West has evolved in such a way that “love, fidelity, commitment,” romance, and other abstract  considerations are more important than anything so concrete as penis-in-vagina sex.  The religious life of the Protestant West has evolved to emphasize the purely abstract over the concrete to a remarkable degree.  Throughout the Western world, same-sex couples are usually treated by their relatives and neighbors as the equals of opposite-sex couples in every way; the exceptions come in legal formalities and in random acts of hostility.  I believe that laws should reflect and sustain the actual practice of society, not assert transcendent standards that would revolutionize that practice, so it seems reasonable to me that marriage as an institution should drift free of its last formal links to penis-in-vagina sex.  However, it is no more “primitive” for Robert George to hold to an understanding of the nature of institutions that precludes such a development than it is for Hindus and Buddhists to revere lingam-yoni symbols.

The whole debate, left and right, strikes me as an example of the modern West’s inability to take sex seriously as a moral concept.  Moderns can be quite calm and serious when discussing the legal standards of consent to sexual behavior, but characteristically respond to moral questions about other aspects of sexual behavior with one of two avoidance strategies.  Either they try to laugh the topic off, or they refer it to medicine, psychology, or some other therapeutic discipline.  This is a real problem with modernity.  Since sexual behavior is such an important part of life, people who try to follow a moral code which has nothing serious to say about sex are likely to become unserious people.   Yet it seems to be an insoluble problem.  Modernity appeals to the formal, abstract rationality of the marketplace, of the courts, of science, of bureaucratic organization.  An institution built to support, celebrate, and commemorate penis-in-vagina sex jars with this formal, abstract rationality; but so, eventually, does everything else that makes life possible and enjoyable.

Again, I hold that the function of the law is to affirm society as it is, not to remake it according to some abstract plan; it is because many same-sex couples in fact operate as married couples in the USA that I hope the law will change and recognize the actually existing reality of our society.  As I pointed out here four years ago, to change that fact and the social conditions underpinning it would require a very far-reaching restructuring of US society.  Modernity, with its attachment to abstract theoretical schemes,  might endorse some such restructurings, and people with a romantic hankering for the premodern might wish they could recreate a world in which the concrete and particular take precedence over the abstract and general.  But as a student of the works of Irving Babbitt, I see in such impulses nothing but the drive to assert one’s own power over the world and the people in it, a drive that can never be satisfied, but that grows with each success it encounters.   If we are ever to recover the sense of the sacramental as something inherent in particular actions, particular things, and particular places, it won’t be the law that leads us to that recovery, but a much broader social development that the law will notice only after it is already so far advanced that few people can formulate a coherent argument for or against it.

Ecce Crock

I read Josh Fruhlinger’s mockery of the day’s newspaper comics at his mighty website every morning.  This morning, he included today’s Crock:

Mr. Fruhlinger’s remark on this piece was:

So … I’m assuming there’s, like, a handyman who endorses things on TV by saying he’s a handyman? Like Schmeese does in the throwaway panels here? Damn it, I hate being made to feel like I’m missing some pop cultural reference, and being made to feel like I’m missing some pop cultural reference by Crock is particularly humiliating.

I commented on his post: “This morning’s Crock is certainly an unconventional retelling of the Easter story.”

Today is Easter.  The strip shows a man of humble social station tied to a wooden stake, in the process of execution by the representatives of an imperial power.  The man proclaims that his execution will be merely a prelude to the realization of his great project.   In the words, “You always thought I was the dumb one,” he tells his executioners that they know not what they do.  Schmeese’s contemplated postmortem advertising campaign for the bullets that will have killed him evokes the Church’s traditional veneration of the cross and the other instruments of Christ’s Passion.

 

 

 

 

Uh-oh

I added a comment to my post below that I decided I should put into a post in chief.  Remarking on the elevation of Argentina’s Cardinal Bergoglio to be Pope Francis, I wrote that I hope he will:

say the phrase “Malvinas/ Falklands” in a high-profile forum very soon. Another war between Britain and Argentina over the islands may not be particularly likely just now, but it is by no means impossible. And that a churchman who has so emphatically identified himself with Argentina’s claim to the islands should have been elevated to the papacy the day after the Falklanders voted almost unanimously to remain a UK territory does threaten to create the impression that the Vatican is something other than neutral regarding the dispute. Such an impression can do no good and could raise the potential for conflict from its current, rather low order of probability to a significant danger.

I made a similar remarks as a comment on Mark Shea’s blog.  I suspect that if Pope Francis waits more than a few hours to make it clear that he will not be bringing his nationalism with him onto the international stage he now occupies, any statement he makes later will inflame Argentine public opinion.

I’ll also link here to Michael Brendan Dougherty’s piece in Slate magazine expressing his reservations about Francis.  I’m not familiar with the issues Mr Dougherty raises, but it shares the crispness and force of all his writing.

Three things I hope the next pope will do

I’m not a Roman Catholic, so it’s really none of my business who will be chosen as the new Pope in the next week or two.  But I can’t resist mentioning that there are three things I hope the new papacy will bring:

1. An effort to promote the Latin language.  I’m a Latin teacher, among other things, and among the major institutions of the world the Roman church is the likeliest to do something to drum up interest in the language.  So I’m hoping that the cardinals will choose a leader who will support such an initiative.

2. Make Insight more widely available.  Between 1960 and 1983, a Paulist priest named Ellwood Kieser led a group that produced an anthology of 30-minute morality plays that were distributed to television stations and shown in Catholic schools around the USA.  This series, titled Insight, reminds many viewers of The Twilight Zone; indeed, Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling himself wrote a couple of episodes of Insight.  Like The Twilight Zone and Star Trek, Insight deals with serious moral issues from a distinctly 1960s perspective.  To the extent that the show offers answers, therefore, they are dated; but that’s part of the charm.  The questions are still there, and by the time we figure out how the show might look different if it were done now we’re wrestling with them.

The Roman church owns the copyright to Insight, but has never made any of them available on DVD, Blu-Ray, or any streaming video format.  They did issue some VHS tapes with a handful of the 250 episodes back in the 1980s, but even those are hard to find.  Most of the episodes are available on kinescope in UCLA’s Film and Television Archive, so if you’re in Los Angeles you can go have a look.  And a few episodes have, no doubt illegally, been uploaded to YouTube.  Paulist Productions is currently raising money to make Insight available again, but that effort doesn’t seem to be making much headway.  It needs a push from someone in a prominent position.  So that’s the second thing I hope for from the new pontificate: Put Insight online!

3. There is one important thing we might realistically hope the next pope will do: have a funny name.  Sure, calling Pope Joseph Ratzinger “Papa Ratzi” might be good for a chuckle, but the cardinals can do better.  I was bitterly disappointed in 2005 when they passed up the opportunity to promote Giacomo Cardinal Biffi, archbishop of Bologna, to the papacy.  Not only is he named Biffi of Bologna, but he had spoken out against vegetarianism.   I suppose he could have taken the name Pope Carnivorus I.  Now Cardinal Biffi is  too old.  But don’t despair; the bookmakers’ favorite is the Archbishop of Milan, Angelo Cardinal Scola (also spelled Sicola,) who would become Pope Sicola.  Pope Sicola hits the spot!

I mentioned these three points to Mrs Acilius the other day.  When I summed them up by saying “So, when the cardinals call and ask for my advice, that’s what I’ll say,” she laughed.  Maybe she doesn’t think they’ll call?  I don’t know.

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